Monday, February 28, 2011

The Gory Guts of Government

Our whirlwind day in Nairobi started in Nyeri at 5:30 AM followed by a three and a half trek south. It was a frantic sprint over poor roads and unmarked speed bumps for much of the journey with a few jar-rattling moments, with the last third of the trip spent staring at the bumper in front of us in a choking traffic jam from Thika into the capital which is apparently de rigeur. The massive road building projects in process seem to be targeted at exactly this migration pattern, but there seem to be enough cars transiting to fill the new road with plenty to spare.

We arrived at  Nyayo House (which still gives me chills) slightly late for our first meeting with the General Counsel of the Immigration Ministry the organization that has subsumed most of the government's Registration departments. We were shuttled up through the masses into the VIP elevator and whisked into his office. What followed was a frank discussion about which laws they respect and which they don't and how we can ensure that our legislation falls into the former camp. Government authorizing legislation is so vertical here, with empowering acts dedicated to each of the ministries, that cross-cutting rules are relatively rare. Success will depend as much on the political power of our sponsor as the quality of our report, but we'll do our part.
We then delved into the front lines of the processes we hope to reform, getting an all-access tour thanks to our backing from the President's office. We began with the head of Passport issuance, who held forth at length on the Somali threat, bragged - rightfully - about the degree to which IT automation in that process has squeezed out the opportunities for graft. Touring the floor was dizzying but not without some method behind the madness. The duplication and over-specialization within the step-by-step-by-step carousel of clerks was at least organized, publicly posted and ultimately effective (if not efficient) in that it can turn around a well-qualified passport request in 14 days (quicker than the US to my recollection). Our magnificent guide took us through the pre-check, the verifying clerk, the cashier, the photographer, the scanner, the indexer, the recommender and the adjudicator. Astoundingly, all of this is done without a whit of external validation or cross-checking unless there is a whiff of suspicion, despite the fact that they have the entire process automated and online access to perfectly good sources of validations. Not only that, but the din is undiminished as people from all over the country flock into this one of only five national processing centers for passports, both to file their application and pick up their finished passports - a daunting task as you can imagine for people coming from the sticks. We saw numerous people turned away for issues with their paperwork or improper materials for pickup. The notion of corruption was literally laughed away, blaming it on "blockers" outside who stand outside the offices posing as expediters who make off with hard-earned, unschooled shillings with no results. (Others have told us that the blockers are only still able to hang around because they kick up to the bosses within the Ministry.)

We took tea with the ministry CIO, Jane Otoko, who was quite blunt with what she hopes to get out of e-government and how we can best achieve it within our allotted time frame. We then proceeded to the low point, at least until that time, of the organization process at Makadera station deep in the neighborhoods of Nairobi. Gone were the gleaming computers, well ordered queues, clear processes, and pressed uniforms. These were ramshackle huts, literally sticks bound with twine at some points, populated by a listless group of unbusy bureaucrats whose chief duty appeared to be delaying the snaking line of humanity outside their door from getting their National ID cards.The administrator held forth in painful and painstaking detail about the finer points of each inane step of their process, proudly displaying "archives" of paper logbooks tenuously stacked in jury-rigged bookcases. No window was intact. No clerk strayed from their designated simple portion of the task. Their tools seemed plucked from the 18th century. No customers were served simultaneously, each one waiting for the one before to complete the full Model-T assembly line process. The opportunities for subjective evaluations, inexplicable delays, and corruption abounded. A single web-form could render all of them irrelevant and their customers served at a much higher level.

Those few of them who were working in a dilapidated concrete structure had an interesting cornerstone.

Given my experience yesterday, one would expect it to say "killed fighting FOR Mau Mau" especially on a building populated by the government that has now dedicated their national holiday to them. A fascinating dissonance.

We rushed back to Sheria House in the government complex and met with the Attorney General's CIO, who tried to give us a clearer idea of what we needed to provide the legislative drafters. In the course of the meeting he enlightened us to the 255 forms that they provide for corporate legislation, the five types of marriage they register (civil, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and African customary), and the hodgepodge of other functions their office serves.

On the ground floor, we then witnessed what was the most striking of all the processes we experienced today - the Birth Certificate registration office. Only 60% of Kenyan births are registered, since many still occur at home, especially outside of Nairobi. Many children are not registered until they need to sit for matriculation exams, and the administrator was telling us of cases where people don't register their birth until age 70, when they want a passport to leave the country. The process is completely manual, with the only computers involved being one set for printing the certificates, by manually typing them and then printing onto form paper, and calculating statistics, by manually typing collected numbers into an Excel spreadsheet with over 70 tabs and copying the numbers into a "report" in Microsoft Word. The actual records are stored in hundreds and hundreds of red backed books dating back decades and decades. These books are on shelves, on desks, strewn on the floor and, in at least one instance, being used as doorstops. Foot-high piles of applications rested on every spare surface, with some clerks unable to see over the pile in front of them. No process was apparent although the administrator assured us it existed. The dysfunction was dazzling, and I've provided a brief snippet below. This is one of those areas where someone concerned with e-Government throws up their hands and does not know where to begin, except maybe with a match and a jug of kerosene.

We finished off the day meeting with Vivian from IBM East Africa at a delightful repose called the Nairobi Java House, a Starbucks knock off which definitely smelled, felt and tasted like carefully calibrated corporate issue home. I'm not saying I miss it, but it's impossible to deny the draw.


  1. go--fix it in 3 weeks!!!!!!!!!!! Nothing is too much for IBM people. Best of luck to you--I hope you have an Irishman on the team--you will need the luck of the Irish!

  2. I guess the legacy of red ledgers is all over formerly British Africa. Ah, reminds me of the fun times I used to have visiting the Gambian Ministry of Finance and wondering aloud if the economic statistics they were giving me were real or just made up only moments before. The clerks there seemed to type their data entry in slow motion, having no incentive to go any faster. At least you didn't find rats eating the red books, which is what we found when we went to assess the Gambian Parliamentary library. Then when we built them a new library, stocked it and trained the librarians, the rats found a new home: inside the state-of-the-art copier we gave the library, where the wires must have been particularly tasty. :-)