What can tech do for tax justice?
Despite Kenya’s notable economic growth, inequality levels have been rising. In a country with a tax gap of 40%, there is huge potential to strengthen tax systems, and improve the redistribution of public resources through more and better investment in free public services. Although the right to public participation and civic engagement have been recognised in the 2010 Constitution, realisation of these is challenging, largely due to the restricted capacity of people to participate meaningfully in the governance of their resources. Since there are no simplified versions of budgets and expenditure, citizens have not been able to effectively engage with the budgeting, allocation and spending of County resources.
To tackle these issues, funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Finland has provided an opportunity for Oxfam to work with civil society, local government and corporations towards a more progressive, transparent and accountable tax and expenditure regime. The focus of the “ Mobilising Progressive Domestic Resources for Quality Public Services” project is building awareness of citizens, particularly women and youth, to effectively influence policy changes related to government revenue raising, budgeting and spending.
But how can we bridge the gap between citizen needs and information sharing in a simple and accessible way, to support the objective of achieving tax justice? Could technology hold the key?
Tech could be one piece of the tax justice puzzle, so to explore this, Oxfam Kenya brought together staff, partner organisations, County Government representatives, techies and other external contacts working on technology for development to discuss the problems and challenges on the ground. This set the frame for some unchartered territory for Oxfam as we stepped away from normal models of programme support to host our first hackathon, a collaborative computer programming event, working towards a social good. Here groups of technical experts worked together to brainstorm and realise potential ICT solutions to respond to programme needs, applying their technical skills and experience to offer creative responses in the context of very real problems faced by citizens in the communities where the project operates.
To assist with the design process and test the relevance of the proposed systems across a range of citizens’ needs, focus groups created user statements enabling them to empathise with different stakeholders.
It became apparent how important it was to focus on design considerations. Take gender for example: in the project implementation areas the communities are mostly pastoral, meaning that the men tend to be on the move with their cattle and women tend to work in markets, making it easier for county revenue collectors to tax the women, increasing their tax burden compared to the men. It was therefore important for us to ask: how does gender influence the public service needs of citizens? Feedback collection and disaggregation by gender could hold useful insights and ensure service needs of different groups are met. (The bulk of increased tax collection, however, needs to come from those who are better able to pay, such as the rich and companies.)
Geographical context is also a factor; in Nairobi, middle classes who have higher levels of education and hence more capacity to actively engage with tax issues could hold the government to account and demand transparency on tax allocation and spending, e.g. through social media. In Turkana and Wajir, rural populations have barriers to engagement, such as how to access information about County Assembly budget allocation for public services. Any system should enable assessments, checks and balances in a simple way so that it can be used by people with different levels of education.
At the end of an intense event, sleep deprived hackers showcased ingenious proposed solutions, including real time information updates to monitor transactions, budget tracking, citizen engagement, cashless tax payment systems and new monitoring processes.
Proposals presented at the hackathon may have the potential to become very valuable in support of increased fiscal justice in Kenya. The hackathon has been a first lesson in how to incorporate learning. Freely available software and focus group discussions certainly have an important role to play, but with more funds it might be possible to take hackers to the field for them to meet the end users, develop and test solutions and look at implementation for a valuable process of co-learning. By working together to identify problems and solutions, the County government might be more likely to take up a solution, feel ownership and use their own resources in future to ensure its continuation and sustainability (e.g. looking for resources to sustain or mend it to ensure it goes beyond the life of the project). ICT work in Kenya with the support of financing from this project could help achieve long lasting results to improve the lives of communities (especially women and youth) with whom we are working.