Efficient record management as a basis of good governance
As we all know, there exists a very close relationship between governance and records keeping. Well-managed records are essential tools for good governance. They facilitate the achievement of transparency and accountability in public administration, as indeed in all other types of administration. When government records are easily accessible to members of the public at times when they want to verify actions and activities of public servants, a relationship based on trust between the government and the governed is greatly strengthened. In such an environment, evidence will be made available whenever needed. The public service will then enjoy the confidence and the support of its citizens. Unfortunately, this relationship has, until recently, not received the necessary attention. As a result, the state of record management has often been unsatisfactory, especially in developing countries. The consequences have been very serious: mistrust, suspicion and above all lack of transparency and accountability.
Evidence clearly shows that many developing countries have severe record management problems. As a result, effectiveness in public administration is directly undermined in a number of ways: the administration of justice is greatly compromised and government revenue cannot be fully collected because the records on which their calculations must be based are not comprehensive enough, or were never created. Furthermore, in an environment in which records are poorly kept, proper audit is practically impossible. These are very costly failures, especially for poor developing countries, countries that are perpetually begging. With this in mind, it is very surprising that many public records in Kenya, as indeed in many other developing countries, have been so poorly managed that they have directly undermined any efforts to achieve good governance. Let me therefore start by stating very categorically that good governance cannot be achieved in an environment in which records are poorly managed, and in situations in which records are regularly missing or lost. I will examine a few cases to demonstrate this fact.
Relationship Between Efficient Records Keeping and Provision of Services
Every day public officers in Kenya, as indeed in other countries, are supposed to provide services to the citizens. Every hour, every day, they are making decisions that relate to the provision of these services. They must, of necessity, rely on records to make these decisions. When the records are disorganized, when some of these records are missing or lost, this is likely to lead to poor decisions, and sometimes delayed decisions. In other words, citizens will be denied quality decisions. They will be denied efficient services by the very people whose taxes they are paying.
When citizens cannot get prompt service from public offices because the relevant records are missing or lost, or when the records in question have been intentionally hidden by some corrupt public servants, the citizens will be tempted to bribe so that somebody will “search” for them. This really happens: it is not a joke. Another example is the matter of water bills: citizens may not be correctly billed because correct information in the form of records is missing. In this regard, we have heard very many complaints against the City Council of Nairobi. There is no doubt in my mind that the services provided by the Council would have been much more efficient if its record keeping systems were efficient. The same situation also exists at the Lands Department whose record keeping systems has been very poor. In fact, they actually collapsed a long time ago. The consequences have been disastrous. There are no words to explain the amount of suffering and frustration of the many Kenyans as a result of this very unsatisfactory situation. It is therefore not an exaggeration to state that poor records management directly leads to delays and poor service, frustration on the part of the public, and opportunity for corruption. In other words, no government can achieve good governance without efficient record keeping systems and services.
Relationship between Efficient Records Keeping and Administration of Justice
As everybody knows, efficient court services provide one of the strongest foundations for good governance. In turn, an efficient court system must of necessity be based on effective record keeping systems and services. Many Kenyans will recall the frustrations they have experienced as a result of poor record keeping systems in the courts. Cases of missing and lost files have been regularly reported in the print media. There is no doubt that this has undermined the administration of justice. In a stinging editorial in a widely read newspaper1 in the year 2001, it was reported as follows:
It is a matter of gross injustice that files can go missing from the law courts, the one place where Kenyans go for justice. Yet, according to the chief justice, Mr. Bernard Chunga, Nairobi law courts have reported a total of 500 missing files this year alone. Many more are missing across the country, he admitted. We can only guess how many other files have been missing over the years in the country’s court registries.
It is not possible for any country to achieve good governance under such a situation. Justice will be delayed if case files are missing or lost. Such a situation will provide an excellent environment for corruption. Above all, the objective of good governance will be a dream impossible of realization.
Record Keeping, Transparency and Accountability
Perhaps the most important pillar of good governance is that of transparency and accountability. Public officers must be accountable for their actions. For this to happen, there must be evidence to clearly indicate who is responsible for which action, for example, any theft or loss of public funds. Such evidence, which is almost always in the form of records, is needed in case of recovery of lost and stolen monies or in case of court actions. This really emphasizes the immense importance of keeping records efficiently, and especially financial records. Yet it is in this very area where the situation is often very unsatisfactory. It then becomes difficult to clearly hold one particular person responsible for loss or theft of funds. And it would be almost impossible to achieve successful prosecution in a court of law. Similarly, proper auditing becomes very difficult, if not impossible.
In this country, the reports of the Controller and Audit General have often stated his inability to successfully carry out the audit function in certain cases as a result of inadequate and poorly kept records. This is not surprising. Corrupt and inefficient public officers will rarely keep comprehensive and accurate records. They know very well that they ought to keep such records but it is to their advantage not to do so.
Well-kept records are the greatest enemy to corruption. Any government that wishes to be accountable to its citizens must of necessity demand efficient record keeping in all public offices. Otherwise there can be neither transparency nor accountability.
1. “Stinking scandal of missing court files.” East Africa Standard, 26 October 2001.