When times are tough, governments declare they will slash spending and Kenyan ones are no different. Kenyans will remember when Uhuru Kenyatta, as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, declared that government ministers would have to be driven in Volkswagen Passat vehicles because the customary Mercedes Benz limousines were fuel guzzlers. It’s not clear what that decision did to the lumbar health of our leaders, but the natural order of things was soon restored.
It is not uncommon for finance ministers in particular to make these symbolic gestures. There is a Canadian tradition where the Finance Minister buys new shoes ahead of Budget Day. In 2011, the incumbent wore resoled shoes to signify, he said, that he was reading a “prudent” budget.
Despite the gestures, actual cost-cutting happens less often yet this need not be the case. Many governments have learned to lower expenses for their leaders and nothing stops Kenya from learning these lessons. In this article, I set out a few.
We know that Kenyan MPs aggressively defend – and regularly add to – their salaries, a situation enabled by their constitutional control of the purse strings. When in 2019 the Salaries and Remunerations Commission (SRC) moved to cut their salaries, the MPs retaliated swiftly by slashing the Commission’s budget.
American congressmen are similarly aggressive in defending the purse strings. Charlie Wilson’s War, the 2003 book about the CIA’s covert action against the Soviets in Afghanistan, featured a powerful subcommittee chairman, Clarence D. Long. “Them that has the gold makes the rules,” he always said. Yet despite this aggression, representatives did succeed in controlling their desire for ever-higher salaries. According to the Congressional Research Service, salaries for representatives have been frozen since 2009.
This may have had something to do with the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which says that “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”
While cause and effect are not immediately clear, some version of this law should be considered here. Given the considerable attrition rate of our elected leaders every five years, the likelihood of never seeing a cent of the new money might just lower their enthusiasm. It might need an amendment to the Constitution though, given that our MPs are unlikely to pass such a law.
Then there is the cost of transition from one regime to another, in which case living arrangements are always worth a look. When a new government enters office, it is obvious that the new occupant of an executive mansion may have different tastes from his or her predecessor, and so in the White House for example, a limited redecorating budget is provided. Anything extra is purchased from private funds.
These limits were recently exposed in the United Kingdom when it was reported that a former prime minister had failed to disclose a donation towards redecorating his apartment on Downing Street. The redecoration cost far in excess of the £30,000 annual budget (about KSh 5.4 million) provided by the government.
That being said, it must also be said that the desire to save public funds, if not moderated, can also be counterproductive. A reluctance to spend public money meant that badly needed repairs at the Canadian Prime Minister’s official residence in Ottawa were delayed so long that when Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister in 2015, he refused to move in, considering the place unliveable. Now the government plans to abandon the structure.
Then there is food. Michelle Obama famously revealed that the First Family paid for the food they consumed, even if their food shopping was done for them. This wise principle should be extended to government hospitality. A foreign dignitary on a state visit is rightly entertained by the State because some national benefit is expected to accrue, such as cementing trade or cultural ties. However, if a meeting of MPs is called to panga siasa, there is a case to be made that the political party and its members, not the exchequer, should pay for the tents, catering and whatnot.
To summarise, should government officials be feasted, ferried and festooned by the exchequer, or subsist on dry githeri and salt in the name of saving public funds? The obvious answer is to strike a balance. The government provides essentials; should you want more, please pay for it.
To improve the health of our finances, we’ll have to think more about how much senior leaders should be reimbursing (for that is our r–word). Rules should be made public for everything: catering, vehicles, flights, airtime, fuel, hotel stays, gifts. I’m sure the Auditor General would not mind, and our pockets would be better off.