Debt Management Strategies in Kenya

8 mins read

Guest blog by Fredrick Oluoch Odhiambo

1. What were your expectations of IPP Online when you signed up?

When I expressed an interest in the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Program, I was not sure I would get accepted, especially during these crises around the globe, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic that was ravaging the world indiscriminately. In terms of my expectations for the course, I thought it would be theoretical, book-oriented program with some interaction space and lots of academic work to do. To my surprise, the HKS program turned out to be an exciting experience that was not entirely theoretical, boring or book oriented. I really learned by engaging and participating through the groups and experiences of our professors.

My hope was that the IPP course would provide me with insight and new skills on how to navigate the political forum and how to be held in esteem with senior leaders to advance my initiative among the over one hundred other corporate priorities currently in-flight. I have never in my life been so captivated without getting distracted or weary from listening to a speaker. I was surprised to see a few key PDIA elements similar to the trainings I have received from other courses in my career. In particular, the cause and effect, or fishbone diagram approach to brainstorming true root causes of an issue which I have learned in the past 20 years in my education career. I finally learned from Matt Andrews the true nuances of why one couldn’t expect to apply the same approaches in the public sector with the same results.

2. What were some key learnings from this course?

The best learning from the IPP course has been the validation of my personal leadership style as being effective and powerful. I am a highly empathetic person by nature and have strongly valued and found strength in one-on-one relationships throughout my career. I have witnessed the power of trust from this investment as I never lacked the willing assistance or support from peers or subordinates. I find satisfaction from coaching and helping others succeed, the learning is a constant. Thanks to Matt’s teaching, I now recognize that I have been wrong to criticize some previous methodologies or perceived inactivity throughout the organization. Both empathy and humility are key in government leadership, as Matt taught us; I must remember the humility.

Another key learning concept that I have managed to achieve is how to manage multiple authorizers, the power of negotiating with questions to find the source of interest, and the ladder of inference are all concepts I will be going back to several times to build my skillset. I have realized during this journey that the politics, or perhaps mixture of ego and fear, at the senior leadership level can be more powerful and distracting than the politics of the elected leaders. One of the key learnings from this course is that your work is never really done. PDIA is based on iterations, permanently trying to understand the problem in a better way to find comprehensive solutions for our citizens. These iterations are at the core of the whole process because they help to identify and manage the problem.

3. What implementation challenge are you working on?

I am exercising leadership in the face of complex challenges and am most likely to encounter resistance and opposition to what I do which leads to additional risk. I don’t know if others will be open to learning and unlearning. For instance, public debt needs to be managed transparently yet the oversight body which is the National Assembly is politically volatile and filled with interest groups, and not in a clear position to oversee the Government from excessive borrowing since their payment and their decision making are managed by the same government. This has been demotivating for the team and yet there has not been any pause in the high expectations to transform the organization in less than half the projected time; we remain a team of influence without authority.

I recognized that I had originally focused on gaining authority to advance the tactical actions and approvals for the transition projects that could be handled by plan and control or agile approaches. Kenya’s debt position is reaching dangerous levels and the country must ease pressure on the need to borrow to spend before it is too late. There, liquidity constraints might be a mitigating factor. It can also present an opportunity to begin working on reorganizing our debt and relook at low cost debt to refinance the high cost debts. However, my overarching barrier to gaining policy authorization and making significant business change lies in the lack of a corporate-wide designed governance structure. The political bickering and intolerance makes harmonization of these problems difficult since there are a lot of competing interests at the detriment of the citizenry.

4. What progress did you make or what insights did you have about your problem through this process?

The Government through public expenditure frameworks lacks the requisite revenue diversity sources to ensure a balanced budget. This has necessitated the need to continuously borrow to bridge the National budget deficit. While there is a systematic process in place to facilitate borrowing, there-in lacks citizen participation in this process for the people to question the borrowing needs and usage hence lack citizen accountability. I have engaged the chair budget and appropriation committee and I have also talked to the Auditor-General on ways of mitigating skyrocketing appetite for borrowing and a blanket lack of accountability in expenditure and have come up with a policy intervention to ensure the framework addresses debt issues and increased appetite of continuous borrowing.

In this case, it would target debt management frameworks focused on how the composition of debt is managed, and the long-term sustainability of debt, which is influenced by both its level and composition. While each has its own particular focus, the approaches are meant to complement each other as the level and composition of debt are basically inter-linked.

I have also engaged the expertise of Public Debt Management Office (PDMO) whose mandate is to arrange for meetings and coordinating the activities of the agents, especially the citizen participation and other stakeholders, to get their views on priority of projects and overall accountability of the public funds.

I know that the time spent building relationships across middle management and front-line staff is strong and I have their trust and commitment to work through these hard transitions because they now share my vision for what asset management practices can deliver to improve their work efforts, and to the citizens who will receive the benefits through better quality services and sustainable debt management.

5. What motivated you and how might this approach change (or not change) the way you tackle problems in the future.

My remaining area of challenge is the senior authorization team and the political bureaucracy.  Although I have the support of my authorizer to advance the overall initiative, I need to navigate the small “p” politics of the senior authorization team to move them beyond support by words alone, but to be active and visible leaders in this initiative. I have drawn so much learning and respect from my IPP peers in addition to the IPP staff and program support team over these last six months. I learned that I cannot avoid the context and I had to read about the problems of the institution/people I was visiting in order to be more effective.

Agents and their functions can only lead to change when synergized, which signifies the importance of mobilization and the agents can then mobilize others. It brings accountability and everybody feels appreciated and accepted in any decision making because any policy change affects everybody either directly or indirectly. It is thus advisable to listen to the views of every agent due to the diverse ideas critical in decision making.

As a Senior Leader of the National Audit Office for the Country that works for the National Assembly, and reports on public spending, revenue collection and ensures public accountability is adhered to, we see our mandate as oversight on where there are system breaches on the processes in place to facilitate borrowing. All the stakeholders must be involved for the smooth implementation of the policy challenge. Debt managers, fiscal policy advisors, and central bankers should share an understanding of the objectives of debt management. Those who will be affected by reform or policy change accept the need for change and the implications of change. All the stakeholders must be on board for any idea to be successful.

I have learnedto be inclusive, taking a cue from team sports. Every member of the team has a critical role to play, and the success of the team is dependent on everyone being able to fulfill those roles successfully. I have also learned that I am a great mobilizer because I have been able to coordinate different agents and convince them about the importance of public debt management. I have requisite skills and competency in building capacities of public entities to enhance compliance and adherence to public and social accountability after having worked for three National Audit Institutions across the continent.

6. How are you using or will you use what you have learned in this course?

The process of developing a debt management strategy involves establishing debt management objectives, understanding the cost and risk implications of different strategies, and having in place a strong governance framework, including ensuring that debt managers are accountable for implementing the strategy efficiently. In this case, it has targeted debt management frameworks focused on how the composition of debt is managed, and the long-term sustainability of debt, which is influenced by both its level and composition.

Ihave managed to include and contact all the stakeholders concerned in debt management like the National treasury, chair budget and appropriation committee. I have also taken the concerns of the citizenry and listened to their concern on the project selection and funds allocation. I have also managed to contact the Public Debt Management Office (PDMO) who is responsible for arranging for meetings and coordinating the activities of the agents. This team is necessary for my problem policy challenge since each and every person is affected directly or indirectly by the decision emanating from debt management. The Legislature (National Assembly) is an important agent as it approves any decisions of the government to borrow from the local or international markets. They monitor and oversee the spending patterns and the debt ceiling of the Country, and authorize increasing or lowering the levels. By engaging the chair budget and appropriation committee, I have managed to fully engage the legislature to know their contribution in Debt management.

I found that I have gone through a slight transition from turning my condition of obligation from a challenge to a point of interest for my team and me. The realization that policy is a lifelong commitment motivated me to start devising more dynamic styles of engagement with peers. I intend to transfer the knowledge I have by way of step-down trainings at multi-sectorial levels to target the policy community in Kenya and possibly surrounding African countries to equip them with new perspectives.

7. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with fellow PDIA practitioners around the world?

In terms of the quality and content of learning, I received what I was expecting from a world class faculty. What I didn’t expect was the level of support I received throughout my policy implementation journey, which is phenomenal.

Maintaining authorization is an iterative process that can only be reinforced through continual and effective communication with our authorizers. And finally, I learned that implementing public policy requires a lot of grit and determination to succeed; we would need to learn how to self-motivate while keeping our team members equally motivated. Overall, there is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to public policy problems, and that we must adapt our solutions to the local context in which we implement public policy and adapt our strategy to the changing policy environment.

PDIA is a paradigm shift in the way we implement public policy. It is a lifestyle that requires constant awareness of the changes in the policy implementation landscape and adapting your approach with the overall objective in mind. PDIA is not for the faint-hearted. It will require a shift from the current waterfall approach to project design, to an agile one. One wonders how this will be adopted by the bureaucratic multilateral development agencies like the World Bank and IMF, who are used to a more control-centric approach to policy implementation.

Overall, I thank the whole team for the way the learning process was structured, giving each and every one participatory chance and understanding the stress we were undergoing during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

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