By Fredrick Obwanda
Kenya has been functioning without documented legal safeguards to data interoperability. The state has mostly relied on information on hard copy documents spread across different agencies. This means that if a Kenyan citizen wants services, they must carry an identification card, a driving license, passport, birth certificate, depending on the document required at each agency based on whatever services one needs.
This hard copy identity interagency clatter has made it very difficult for even government to process essential identification documents unless it relies on chiefs, and village elders to confirm specific pertinent details such as place of birth, the village of birth. It has also led to slow workflow between different agencies, creating efficiency gaps that have been exploited by rogue government entities to perpetuate corruption as many Kenyans seek to facilitate the systems to move in their favour.
It is against this backdrop that the government has been trying to find ways of making its systems efficient. One of the key areas of focus is the centralization of big data to ease access across different government agencies to serve citizens better.
In 2004, the NARC government, in its strategy paper, introduced the electronic government (e-government). It defined it as the use of a wide range of information technologies, such as the wide-area networks (WAN), Internet, and mobile computing, by government agencies to transform government operations to improve effectiveness, efficiency, and service delivery and promote democracy.
It explained e-government’s fundamental role in the modernization of government, as it would provide a common framework and direction across the public sector. It would also enhance collaboration within public sector organizations and institutions, between government and the business community, and citizens and serve in the implementation of government policies. It also identifies ways of developing the skills needed by public servants to realize the new opportunities offered by information communication technology (ICT) advancement such as the Internet.
The strategy was designed to achieve a pre-determined set of goals and objectives: better and efficient delivery of government information and services to the citizens, promoting productivity among public servants, encouraging participation of citizens in government, and empowering all Kenyans in line with development priorities at the time. At the end of its term, the administration had put in place the hardware for the sector.
The world has since moved on quite fast, experiencing rapid growth in the ICT sector, resulting in a significant transformation in the social, economic, and business operations and processes. The sector has helped to reduce the cost of communication, increased market information, and facilitating business in the private sector. This has necessitated the government’s need for digitizing its practices and processes.
Trial and error
There have been several piecemeal attempts at solving this challenge. For instance, the Judiciary digitization started in 2011, aiming at digitizing over 30 million records in the registries as a first step towards the automation of the justice system. As at mid June 2020, it is estimated that over 2.5 million records had been digitized. The work entails the conversion of the current paper documents into digital formats and storing them in a centralized document management system.
The government was also digitizing material at the National Civil Registration comprising birth and death records after which state departments were required to digitize theirs to complete the e-government exercise. However, a spot visit at the registrar of persons office mid 2020 showed that the public were being encouraged to utilize online application of the certificates, however the backend systems seemed still in manual mode, because it now takes even longer, up to four months for citizens to get their hands on their certificates.
In early 2013, then cabinet secretary for lands in the new Jubilee administration Hon. Charity Ngilu started a program of land digitization at the ministry, which she did not midwife to completion as she was ousted out of the ministry over corruption allegations. The current Lands Cabinet Secretary Hon. Faridah Karoney gave impetus to the process from early 2019. The digital platform is poised to ultimately solve problems that have burdened land registration and administration in Kenya for a long time. Digitization is to make data classification and management more efficient through Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and Land Information Systems (LIS).
After completion of the migration process of land data into the digital platform, cases of irregularities associated with land conveyance will fall. At the click of a button, any interested party would get all the details about a parcel of land from previous ownerships to lease status and current interests in the land. Bureaucracies involved in transactions and forgeries will also be eliminated.
Integrated financial management information system
In 2014, the government moved a step further to transform its procurement processes by launching the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS) to increase transparency and eliminate opportunities for corruption. Data was migrated from paper and legacy systems to the e-procurement system, thus automating all procurement processes, including the payment.
In the same year, the government launched the Huduma Kenya program aimed at transforming public service delivery by enabling citizens to access various public services and information from a central place. These citizen service centres called Huduma Centers.
Besides this, the government also launched the Huduma number cards. The card consolidates all bio data of a citizen, phasing out the current national identity cards. Citizens will no longer have to carry multiple documents to access government services. Kenyans registered for the card in 2019 in a national drive.
However, due to several court processes, the program was delayed and has recently been jump-started, with the card issuance set to begin on December 1, 2020, through to December 2021. President Kenyatta led the way by showcasing his Huduma Number during this year Mashujaa day in Gusii stadium together with the first lady Margaret Kenyatta.
Police services digitization
Early 2019 Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i launched the digitization of police processes and services aimed at creating a digital database of all police officers to ease operation in security management. This digitization of records is part of the broader police reforms agenda to ensure that all the National Police Service operations from the human resource, criminal data records, and occurrence books are available at the click of a button.
Data protection Act
All the listed piecemeal government digitization efforts have been happening in an environment with no legal backing, and it was a relief when President Uhuru Kenyatta assented to the Data Protection Act, 2019 on November 8, 2019.
The Act is to guide and regulate the processing of data, ensure that the processing of data is subject to the necessary protections and privacy of individuals, within the established legal and institutional mechanism to protect personal information. It also set the stage for the hiring of a data protection commissioner to oversee this whole process.
The pioneer commissioner, Ms Immaculate Kassait, was sworn into office on 16 November 2020. Her office is tasked with overseeing the implementation of and is responsible for the enforcement of the Act and establishing and maintaining a register of data controllers and data processors. Also, it would exercise oversight on data processing operations, either of own motion or at the request of a data subject, and verifying whether the processing of data is done per the Act.
The commissioner will also promote self-regulation among data controllers and data processors; conduct an assessment, on its own initiative of a public or private body, or at the request of a private or public body for ascertaining whether the information is processed according to the provisions of the Act or any other relevant law.
In addition, the commissioner will receive and investigate any complaint by any person on infringements of the rights under the Act and take such measures as may be necessary to bring the provisions of the Act to the knowledge of the general public.
The commissioner is also tasked with carrying out inspections of public and private entities to evaluate the processing of personal data, promoting international cooperation in matters relating to data protection and ensure country’s compliance on data protection obligations under international conventions and agreements.
The commissioner will also research developments in data processing of personal data and ensure that there is no significant risk or adverse effect of any developments on the privacy of individuals.’
I hope that the government is firmly committed towards an overhaul of its systems from analogue to digital now that there is in place legislation to guide the process. The country can now look forward to the future in the crowded space of governance efficiency and hope to come out among the best networked in Africa if not the world.
Fredrick Obwanda is Programme Director at Uwazi Consortium