No app can make up for a lack of political will

Friday March 11 2016

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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Someone recently tweeted that we need an app to keep up with all the corruption scandals in Kenya today.

Since I work in the technology sector, someone else quickly roped me into the conversation. As I read the reactions to that sentiment, I couldn’t help but wonder if we have started noting what, perhaps, could only emerge in a society like ours:

There is no app to solve for the lack of political will. In other words, there is no technological intervention that fixes intrinsic human motivations.

We have turned to technology in the hope that it will help us better instil transparency and accountability, especially in government.

Technology can help with that, if only these virtues, transparency and accountability, were intrinsic motivations in our individual and collective psyche. Technology is not in and of itself the magic bullet to instil these and other principles.

Let us walk through some of the technologies our government has heavily invested in to help us inch closer to transparency and accountability, with a chance of tackling corruption.

IFMIS

This system was introduced to integrate public financial management and procurement systems within government. Sure enough, some level of progress has been achieved, in terms of sheer adoption, and the idea behind it is solid.

However, the system has been co-opted into corruption. Passwords were supposedly stolen, and hard-earned taxpayers’ money subsequently vanished.

Parliament has expressly stated that this online platform, which had been heavily invested in – both in cash and marketing - “cannot stop pilferage of public resources.” Not to mention that perhaps the easiest way to avoid transparency and accountability of procurement systems, is the reluctance, or perhaps outright refusal to use the system, as noted by the President’s warnings about switching to eProcurement.

The technology, in short, could not make up for the missing value system.

As the description on the IFMIS website rightfully states, “Sound systems, strong legal and regulatory frameworks as well as a competent and productive civil service are the cornerstones of an efficient Public Finance Management (PFM) regime.” The technology or online platform could not “hack” the need for these cornerstones, which lie in human intrinsic motivations.

ELECTRONIC VOTER IDENTIFICATION DEVICES (EVIDs)

While reflecting on the 2013 elections some time last year, a Kenyan intellectual made a statement that stuck with me. The greatest failure of that election, according to this individual, was the technology.

We have been walked through the how and why of what went wrong, and urged to accept the outcome and move on.  

Why was technology the greatest failure? The premise that introducing technology – from voter registration level to the tallying of results – would make the whole process transparent naively assumed that technology, on its own, could solve problems.

The true failure in that 2013 election was overlooking the fact that people would still be involved, and would impact how the technology performs.

Put differently, as Kentaro Toyama says in his book Geek Heresy, “the right people can work around a bad technology, but the wrong people will mess up even a good one”.

We are in the process or re-registering voters, and we run the risk of over-relying on technology once again.

ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD

This is one issue over which the incumbent government has endured repeated egg-on-face moments, but which illustrates well the point being drummed over and over again in this piece.

The government has finally acknowledged that for the programme to work, appropriate infrastructure to support the laptops cannot be bypassed. The second lesson, which I hope will not waste our taxpayer money unnecessarily, is that good teachers will still be needed in a digital education era.

While PCs, laptops, tablets and other digital technologies can supplement good instructions, they cannot substitute for time with real teachers. So, for as long as the government is determined to fulfil this promise - made to kids who are now in Standard Three – it must ensure that there are educators who are just as good as the technology that will ultimately be deployed.

'CORRUPTION-FREE ZONE'

One must sigh every time they utter or mention this word. The audacity and innovation with which corruption is practiced in Kenya is simply astounding.

Somewhere along the way, we embraced the idea that technology would help us fight corruption. We invested in technology, particularly in the public sector, only that we actually enhanced the scale at which corruption is practised. 

There was a portal embedded within the President’s website ,which at the time of writing could not be traced, for instance. Before channels for reporting corruption went digital, we had “This Is A Corruption-Free Zone” notices placed at every entrance of a government institution. 

I remember how much symbolism those posts had around 2002 and 2003, in line with the renewed optimism of the post-Moi era. Now, the message rings hollow.

The hard lesson here is that there is no technology or app that will fix political will, and align it to these technologies that are, at best, amplifiers of the motivation to rid the country of this scourge.

To quote Mr Toyama again, “a government without genuine motivation to eradicate corruption will not become more accountable through new technologies of transparency.” The technologies in our lives and societies are instrumental in keeping us connected and informed and they could go a long way in propelling our nation to great heights.

Technology is an amplifier or enabler, not a panacea that will usher us to a transparent, accountable governance system, or to a corruption-free society. To end with Mr Toyama, “What people get out of technology depends on what they can do and want to do even without technology.”

Twitter: @NiNanjira