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We want stronger Controller of Budget to clip Treasury’s claws

Tuesday November 19 2019

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Former Controller of Budget Agnes Odhiambo. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JAINDI KISERO
By JAINDI KISERO
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We still don’t have a Controller of Budget. Nor do we an Auditor-General. This is several months after the holders of these important constitutional offices exited.

One can argue that the appointment of the Auditor-General is not that urgent, considering that audits are done at the end of the financial year.

LOW REGARD

What is more urgent is appointment of Controller of Budget because the mandate and work of the occupant of this office is a day-to-day affair. We expect that a new holder of this office will be appointed within the timelines stipulated under the law.

Still, I don’t understand how the Executive allowed the tenure of these two officers to run out at the same time. It is, perhaps, a statement of the low regard we have for public financial management. Was it deliberate or an oversight?

But it should not surprise anyone if the appointment of holders of these offices starts to attract interest and attention of public-spirited citizen groups and individuals that are giving the administration a run for its money when it comes to important public appointments.

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What should take precedence between what the Constitution says about appointments and what is stipulated in the Controller of the Budget Act? I have heard murmurs with critics charging that, in drafting the legislation, the National Treasury did not give due regard to the spirit of the Constitution.

THE GATEKEEPER

Of late, Okiya Omtata has been on a roll, nullifying the appointment of one public official after another. The other day, he had the appointments of Esther Murugi and Tyago Galgalo as commissioners of the National Land Commission set aside by a court, which accused the selection panel appointed by the Executive of conducting the recruitment opaquely.

Last week, Mr Omtata got the courts to torpedo the appointment of the entire board of the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA).

The air is rife with rumours and unsubstantiated claims about the panels that conducted interviews for both the Controller of Budget and the Auditor-General. A new Controller of Budget must be in office by December.

The case for a stronger and fiercely independent office of the Controller of Budget cannot be gainsaid. Between appropriations of taxpayer’s money by Parliament and discovery of waste and misuse of public funds by the Auditor-General, the Controller of Budget is the gatekeeper. In discharging her work of gatekeeper to the Consolidated Fund, she can institute any controls she deems fit within her mandate. She is the first line of defence against theft, misuse and abuse of taxpayers’ money.

PUBLIC SUPPORT

In the case of the Arror and Kimwarer dam scams, for instance, the Controller of Budget should have demanded to be shown agreements with the contractor, EPC. She should have demanded to see payment schedules for the project and insisted on being shown the project’s milestone for releasing all payments.

We all remember how the Central Bank of Kenya blew the whistle on the National Youth Service scandal by flagging suspicious and large payments that were being channelled to individuals. Unfortunately, the CBK detected the suspicious payments long after they had been released. The Controller of Budget’s role is to prevent and deter such bad payments.

In appointing a new holder of this office, we must raise the bar very high. What we should demand of the new Controller of the Budget is an individual with stature and profile because he or she will be locking horns with the imperial Treasury.

Secondly, we will need a person with deep domain knowledge of public finance management. The holder must have exceptional expertise in reporting and communications with Parliament. We need a person who enjoys broad public support and goodwill to deal with stand-offs with the National Treasury.

MERE COLLECTOR

Our National Treasury still has too many powers. It makes its own budget and allocates money to itself. Then it allocates monies to ministries, monitors their expenditure and sets spending guideline for them.

In addition, the National Treasury has responsibility and oversight on procurement for the ministries and counties. It runs the Ifmis accounting system for ministries and county governments and is the parent of the Internal Audit directorate, which provides internal audit functions for all ministries, state departments and county governments.

Under the regime of the outgoing Controller of Budget, this independent institution decided to operate as if its most important duty was to do quarterly reports on budget execution. It became a mere collector of statistics on the money that had been moved out of the Exchequer account and spent. We need a stronger Controller of Budget.

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