Kenya: Job Loss Fears Slow Down Switch to E-Govt

Computing

Restrictions of the Official Secrets Act and the fear of massive job losses are slowing down plans by the government to roll out a shared information platform, players have said. They said government departments were stalling because they feared digitising information under their custody might render their staff irrelevant. Only the Attorney-General's chambers and Treasury - the two departments that have volunteered to take part in the pilot project for e-governance - have digitised information so far. Promoters of the shared information platform say government employees, just like private sector players and regulatory agencies, stand to save time and money in a system that has worked well for developed economies. "It will take much shorter time to locate information in the system and government offices will become more spacious and neater once all information is digitised and all cabinets currently holding hundreds of manual files are removed," says Communication and Information PS, Dr Bitange Ndemo. Under e-governance, all information relating to documentation are kept in the computer software as separate windows, each assigned a specific dialling code. Users of the government services can simply get all the information and documentation they need to effect any transaction by accessing the relevant window instead of visit in different offices under the manual system. For example, if a trader imports goods , all he has to do is to dial the four- digit code allocated to the transport ministry's window from where a call centre leads all the way to the Mombasa port and finally to the port of the country where the goods are coming from. By the time a trader leaves Nairobi for Mombasa, he already has the information that his cargo has arrived in Mombasa, the port charges and the time it will take him to clear it. The participation in the single window pilot project by Treasury means agencies such as KRA whose customs department has been singled out for causing delays in border clearance process will greatly improve its services. "This is the way to go on campaigns to reduce the backlog at the port and border points and everyone is excited about the single window concept," says the EAC ministry Permanent secretary David Nalo. East African countries are currently consulting with international experts on implementation of e-governance at regional level to facilitate the sharing of custom revenues once the common market is launched, rendering the internal border posts irrelevant The system allows a trader who wants to contact a trade attaché in US, for instance, to do so by just dialling a number assigned to trade ministry the same way he would dial local numbers and wait as a call centre connects him to the right officers. He will pay for the services at normal rates for local calls,--a radical departure from the present mode of operation where international calls draw higher tariffs. Dr Ndemo assured that none of the serving government employees face retrenchment in the switch to e-governance. "Instead of facing inefficiency of a whole government department, citizens will have to deal with call centres which can easily be replaced in case we get complaints," he said By cutting the direct interface between people seeking services and government officials, Dr Ndemo believes cases of corruption in civil service will also go down. But government agencies are still resisting the calls to digitise their information, the first step towards developing a common information database that facilitates e-governance. Lawyers say the arbitrariness of the official secrets law is likely to discourage many regulatory agencies and government departments from sharing their information on an online portal. "Most government offices--especially disciplined forces--will find it difficult to decide which information to digitise because from time to time, the cabinet can sit and declare any document or aspect of their operations a government secret," says a Nairobi advocate, Mr Sekou Owino. Generally, the Official Secrets Act has been blamed for the creating an information gap between the government and the private sector with the resulting lack of public scrutiny seen as the breeding ground for corruption. Once a document or information is declared a Government secret, Mr Owino adds, such information can only be shared with the general public after 30 years. The single window concept has seen marked success in European countries and they are said to be avoiding countries that still follow the manual system. EU uses the system to apportion tariff revenues among member states, depending on the size of the country's population and import consumption