High Tech in Kenya: Opportunities Modernizing Government

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Jun 25, 2019
by Martin Silva Rey
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High Tech in Kenya: Opportunities Modernizing Government

CEO of Kenya's ICT authority Katherine Getao takes stock of achievements and challenges for the country's public administration Katherine Getao at Salzburg Global Seminar

"Perhaps I had not understood that there are many things that need to come together in order for technology to work…" explains researcher, policymaker and expert in ICT and education Katherine Getao. "There's education, yes, which I was doing, but there's also infrastructure. And there's also business innovation that needs to all come together, and appropriate applications which all need to come together."

Getao was headhunted nine years ago by the Kenyan Government, and last year she was appointed CEO of that country's ICT authority. Since then, one of her main achievements has been Huduma Kenya, an initiative to enhance the access and delivery of government services to the citizens.

To share her experience with other senior public sector leaders, she attended the latest Salzburg Global Seminar program, Agility for an Accelerating World: Can Governments Keep Up?, part of the Public Sector Strategy Network, in Salzburg, Austria.

When asked about the main challenges Kenya faces to continue modernizing the government, Getao said, "Well, the will is there, but sometimes the skill is not there…" The lack of management skills concerns her.

"I'm not talking just about the technological skill because that you can hire. But there's the strategic skill and the tactical skill. Strategy means knowing when and how to choose technology—and the tactics, how to deploy it…

"That can be very challenging because there's a tradition in government about the way things are done, and somebody told me when I first joined the civil service that government is all about power. So whenever you ask for a shift in government, part of the interpretation is how is it going to affect my power structures? Am I going to lose status as a result of the introduction of technology? … there's this myth that technology is going to make everything easy, but technology has to be managed and managed very well in order for it to work appropriately."

Getao is not worried about possible shifts in government. "I think the advantage is that through the efforts of the private sector, the majority of the citizenry have taken the technology to heart. So as a politician, it's difficult to take things backwards because, you know, citizens are used to doing things through technology. So yes, you hear political noises about some of the projects… but usually what happens is eventually the people see the benefit… anything where obviously a large number of people see their benefit, politicians will find it hard to mess up with it…"

To apply technology "to the real needs and problems and issues of the people," Getao focuses on four areas. The first is infrastructure, which, she believes, "is the biggest barrier to the use of technology."

The second area concerns skills. "Skills now is not only about learning about the technology, but it's building digital age values. Trust is a big issue in the digital age. So how do you build the values that support trust? How do you really shape people to be not just consumers of technology but also producers and manipulators of technology?"

The third area involves understanding services. "How do you deliver public services in a very fast and instantaneous way, so that people don't have to interrupt their lives? I mean, the private sector has done that for us. I mean, in Kenya, somebody is always under the table paying bills, sending money to their relatives [and] paying fees. So we used to have to ask for permission to leave work for a few hours to go and do any of those things. But now, even if I was sitting with you… one of my hands would just be busy carrying out all those tasks instantaneously on my phone. And citizens are used to that. So I should not have any public service where they have to interrupt their life flow in order to access the service…"

The final area, which Getao considers "the most important" one? Work. "Some people think that we'll just go through the continuum that maybe other parts of the world did, where you go from agricultural to an industrial society and eventually to a knowledge society. I don't think so because the world has globalized the products that people are demanding, changing the way they live their lives or where they procure their products… Even the climate is changing.

"So what will it be to work? How do you prepare those people for that kind of work? What will they be doing? How do you then shape their environment where they live, where they shop, to facilitate the new work? And what is the new work?"


The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Agility for an Accelerating World: Can Governments Keep Up?, is part of the Public Sector Strategy Network. This program is supported by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, in partnership with Apolitical. Additional country and institutional partners include the Australian Government, the Government of Ireland, the Government of Canada's Impact and Innovation Unit, Civil Service College Singapore, and Nesta. More information on this network is available at the following link: https://bit.ly/2PMCt5m