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“Our world is suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”. 
 People are feeling troubled and insecure.
 Trust is at a breaking point.  Trust in national institutions.  Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order.
 Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march.
 Among countries, cooperation is less certain and more difficult […] 
Trust in global governance is also fragile, as 21st-century challenges outpace 20th-century institutions and mindsets […]

We face a set of paradoxes.
The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented […]

Let me now turn to new technologies and what we can do to uphold their promise but to keep their perils at bay.

With technology outracing institutions, cooperation between countries and among stakeholders will be crucial, including Member States, the private sector, research centres, civil society, and academia […]
There are many mutually beneficial solutions for digital challenges. We need urgently to find the way to apply them.” ~ Excerpts from UN Secretary General’s speech to the UN General Assembly, 2018

When Antonio Guterres delivered this speech, he had just constituted a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, of which I was a member. We were tasked with raising awareness on the transformative power of digital technologies to economies and societies. More importantly, we were to put together a reportafter a nine month “around the world” consultative processon how to advance global “digital cooperation”, a term we defined as “the ways we work together to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies in order to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm.”

To me, this invitation marked an acknowledgement that digital technologies were finally being appreciated as capable of influencing and being influenced by the societies in which they are developed and deployed. It was a refreshing departure from the erstwhile prevailing mindset of a “tech revolution” that was often described in utopian rather than pragmatic terms, including in public policy domains, and one that was already causing more harm that went unacknowledged as much as, if not more, than the good that it was evangelized to offer.

Techsolutionismthe hype and hope placed in and on digital technologies to address societies’ challengeshad not been limited to the world of startups and their “disruption” ecosystems. In the name of development, digital technologies have been proposed, experimented with, and deployed under different umbrellas, with early days creating movements such as “ICT4D” and “m4d” that homed in on the developmental potential of the mobile phone. With new and emerging technologies, the nomenclature continues to evolve; today, we also have “blockchain4d”, “AI for development”, and so on. In this realm, governments and non-governmental organizations are heralded as primary drivers of tech-mediated development, thus crystallizing a particular thinking and approach to digital technologies in governancethat is, decision-making and implementing processes. But there was also something in the techsolutionism hype for other governance actors, including ordinary citizens. Furthermore, private sector players have also been presented as players deserving a prominent seat at the governance table, given their role in steering tech innovation. And through “multi-stakeholderism”the engagement between and among governments, citizens through respective associations and organisations, plus the private sectorwe would be able to see technology work its magic, from upholding democracies to solving world problems in all their complexities.

The typical arc of the hype narrative has been that, given the ubiquity of the internet and  connecting devicessmartphones in particularamong the populace, political revolutions  through social media can birth democracies, developmental outcomes can be reached by tying (public) service provision to these technologies, and the private sectorthrough their innovationscan keep churning out what we need to achieve all these lofty goals. This reached a fever pitch during the COVID-19 pandemic, where digital technologies were relied upon to sustain communication and connection, work, learning and much more. In 2020 and 2021 especially, we were treated, the world over, to fascinating and foolhardy attempts to cement a primacy of digital technologies. This was coupled with the pronouncements that “government/the state is back”, given how governments had to step up and drive the mitigation efforts against the unprecedented harms meted out by the pandemic and its aftershocks. Governments, and especially those in developing countries, experienced a renewed call to embrace digital technologies to deliver on their mandates, from public health to addressing increasingly pressing issues such as climate change. Governance, in this dispensation, is with and through digital technologies. “Govtech” is perhaps the latest label for the concerted push for governments to modernize public sectors through technologies to improve citizens’ lives. To do so, governments are encouraged to take on a “citizen-centric approach”, and a “whole of government approach” in embracing digital transformation to enhance transparency and efficiency.

Governments, and especially those in developing countries, experienced a renewed call to embrace digital technologies to deliver on their mandates.

Before govtech, the push for governments to embrace ICTs in their operations and service provision was dubbed “e-government/e-governance”. Kenya has experimented with e-government since the early 2000s. One of the main deployments from the Kenya e-Government strategy of 2004 was the Integrated Financial Management (IFMIS) that was first deployed in 2003 to ministries, five years after it was initially conceived. In an IFMIS effectiveness audit report for July 2010 to June 2014, the Office of the Auditor General notes that in so far as initiating and sustaining IFMIS, the government had demonstrated commitment that facilitated the automating and integrating of public financial management systems at ministry, departmental and county levels, as well as with the Central Bank of Kenya. In project management and governance, however, IFMIS operations were found wanting on a number of fronts. For instance, the participation of key accountability stakeholders was minimal, notably the Auditor General, Accountant General and Controller of Budget. Furthermore, the system had been operating without a risk management policy; no risk assessment had been conducted, exposing the system to the prospect of reengineering, and operating in contravention of the Public Finance Management Act, 2012.

The IFMIS ICT infrastructure review in the same audit was just as damning: lack of network architecture and bandwidth assessment; no end-user needs assessments guided the procurement of computers, printers, power supply units, printers and other equipment that were deployed to all counties, which at the time, cost KSh200.66 million. Perhaps most interesting and consequential was that the IFMIS asset register was incomplete, in that it only listed network equipment, servers, desktops and laptops connected, and not any information on who was accessing the system or any asset IDs, location of equipment, nor even warranty periods. There were other notable security and IT governance issues too, including inadequate securities and standards, no data encryption, a poor approval process for new system IDs, no password expiry set, duplicate users and inadequate remote management control procedures.

It is around these omissions by design that the “NYS scandal” emerged in the early days of the Jubilee government, where up to KSh1.4b was lost. Stories of how IFMIS was manipulated to plunder public coffers dominated news headlines over the years, and even as recently as last year, senate hearings on IFMIS’ vulnerabilities and “persistent system failure” continued to be tabled. Yet another lingering impact of IFMIS that is often overlooked is the cumulative damage and harm meted out to citizens and especially the legitimate suppliersoverwhelmingly micro, small and medium-size enterprises (MSMEs)who continue to await their dues to this day. The scandal was orchestrated off the back of revamping the NYS to “catalyse transformative youth empowerment” in the country, turning it into a slap in the face to the youth who are always touted as the future. In mainstream media, the focus shifted to the amounts plundered (including subsequent NYS and IFMIS scandals), and to the theatre of nabbing the culprits. In my view, the NYS scandalfacilitated on the back of a technology system introduced to foster trust in how public finance management is reformedin particular, shuttered the youth psyche in Kenya, and especially the trust in our government to deliver on its promises to a generation. This manifested, in my view, in the “youth apathy” that was registered in the lead-up to the 2022 general election.

It is around these omissions by design that the “NYS scandal” emerged in the early days of the Jubilee government.

In the Kenya e-Government Strategy 2004where IFMIS and a host of other e-gov plans were laid outthe drafters rightfully acknowledge that achieving the stated objectives is contingent on having people with the right skills and the right attitudes across government. This is resolved as a matter of conducting “change management” trainings. Yet the intrinsic human motivation that determines the “right skills and attitudes” was and continues to be overlooked in how the government of Kenya (and arguably other peer governments) continue to approach technologies for governance. The choice, procuring, financing, and sustaining of technological systems in our governments often eludes popular frames and analyses, often coming up in the event of a scandal or breach. In Kenya, we have been treated to several key moments in the journey to digitize the national and county governments. The complications around how the e-Citizen portal is managed, the non-starter that has been Huduma Namba and the quest for biometric IDs as a “single source of truth”, as well as the high drama of tech used in our electoral cycles, are other cases in point.

In parallel, Kenya has also experienced its unique version of the “internet revolution”. The landing and switching on of the first fibre optic cable in the country, back in 2009, coincided with the “revolution” of mobile telephony that had gifted us M-PESA in 2007. Combined, these twin forces facilitated a rapid diffusion of these technologies into our society. Almost overnight, owning a mobile phone and internet availability were no longer the preserve of the few, even though affordability remains elusive. Community formations powered by technology emerged, and others came of age. Also, the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, with its guarantees of our fundamental rights and freedoms, rejuvenated our political and civic space. The opportunities to embody and exercise them were facilitated by information and communication technologies (ICTs) in a significant if unrepresentative way, and aggregated the voices of younger generations as formidable civic actors, no longer spoken for or merely tokenised. The organic development and proliferation of the Ushahidi platform; the setting up of tech co-working spaces along Ngong Road in Nairobi and a tech entrepreneurial vim overall, begat the “Silicon Savannah” moniker.

Almost overnight, owning a mobile phone and internet availability were no longer the preserve of the few, even though affordability remains elusive.

What was remarkable about these shifts among us ordinary citizens were the creative ways with which the “internet revolution” was embraced. Blogging took off, and in a big way. In fact, many early Twitter adopters in Kenya were avid bloggers on a diverse range of topics. This brought us together in an exciting manner, with Twitter as a baraza for debate and engagement. In 2011, a group of bloggers and tweeps came together and established the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE). We took our online existence and loose network formation and formalised it offline. Individually and as a collective, we blogged our visions, observations, frustrations, hopes and more. As the 2013 election approached, even politicos recognized the potency of bloggers and would occasionally engage us online and offline. We represented what, at the time, was billed as the promise of the internet age: citizen participation, citizen journalism and more broadly, civic tech.

This use of social media by citizens forced government institutions as well as private sector companies to pitch tent on respective popular platforms to engage with citizens and customers. Inherently, there was a trust that we assigned to the technologies availed to us, to facilitate not only the exercising of our expression, but also to drive demand for engagement in and on political, social, economic, creative, financial and many other forms of discourse.

The state of social media today is markedly different. As these platforms have evolved, so too have the ways they are governed. The use of algorithms to mediate what is rendered visible and to whom, coupled with varied motivations by different actors to inject into online public discourse, has resulted in largely unaccountable and toxic online spheres. Many who leaned into the promise of social media also ushered in new career trajectories, especially among a youth increasingly urged to be entrepreneurs and not wait for formal jobs. Content creation, influencing, social media marketing, gig economy work are income pathways, just as the “traditional” avenues are.

This use of social media by citizens forced government institutions as well as private sector companies to pitch tent on respective popular platforms to engage with citizens and customers.

All of this has rested on the assumption that these platforms are “neutral”, and all one has to do is generate engaging material, target it to desired audiences, if for a fee to boost posts, and impact metrics would flow. The algorithmic governance of social media platforms has jeopardised these alternative paths to prosperity carved out in the digital age. When an algorithm is tweaked on a platform used for livelihoods, and the company cannot be held to account or is not answerable to the laws of your country, when instead we are expected to rely on private forms of self-governance by companies that do not “see us”, the trust we placed on these erstwhile “revolutionary” spaces is severely undermined.

Often overlooked in tech discourses is the governance of these technologies themselves, and how that affects governance with them. Despite “stellar” tech (often dubbed high-tech, world class, etc.), it is the soft yet intractable matter of governance that determines if technologies can deliver efficiency and effectiveness, as well as democratic dividends, and uphold values such as trust in society. In Kenya today, our government continues down the “e-government” path; the current regime plans to digitize up to 5,000 services by June 2023. On the surface, this is a welcome development. But can we trust that these systems will be secure, that our data will be protected, that the loopholes in the platforms powering e-government are sealed to eradicate pilfering? It seems that the government is still operating under a techsolutionism ideology to also serve its political goals of widening the tax base by “knowing more Kenyans by serving them via digital platforms”. Meanwhile, citizens’ use of social media in Kenya seems more measured now, especially for civic engagement and holding the government to account. Those who hold power have learned that they can conduct influence operations to “poison the well”. Over the years, our policymakers have also tried to “tame” the use of these platforms by introducing controversial legislation.

In tech we trust? Unfortunately, the most optimistic response would be, “It depends”. For tech to deliver on any promises, and especially to minimise and not introduce new harms, is wholly dependent on the human processes that generate it, and that order our co-existence. For technologies to warrant trustworthiness, we have to have governance regimes that engender trust within our communities, and in our governments to deliver on the promises and demands of the electorate. Technology, also, is a double-edged sword. For every intended goodsuch as easing public service provisionthere is a bad and an ugly. As IFMIS and election tech over the past two decades have shown us, those good intentions can be fantastically sacrificed at the altar of the motivation to loot and usurp power. No technology, however well designed, can bypass that. Thus, to fully unleash the potential of the digital age in our country, and indeed across the globe, we must fix how governance delivers on transparency and accountability, both for public and private actors.