Huduma Namba: A path to Digital Transformation

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President Uhuru Kenyatta (left), being taken through the Huduma Namba registration form during the launch of the registration campaign.
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Ok, the folks at CIO East Africa asked me to write an article on this after they found me trying to bust a few myths in a WhatsApp group conversation.  It seems we have been talking for a while now about the Huduma Namba.  Many people have registered, many are outraged by what they are hearing, but much of what they are hearing seems to be a combination of poor-quality journalism, fake news, and gossip.

Let’s get straight to the point and do some myth busting.

Myth 1: Huduma Namba is not linked to an American credit card company. 

“Huduma Namba” is a new National Integrated Identity Management System from the government of Kenya.  It almost shares a name with “Huduma Card” which was a pre paid debit card initiative of Mastercard to promote financial inclusion by making government payments such as pensions optional to a debit card

Myth 2: There is no plan to turn off your SIM card if you don’t register for Huduma Namba.

I’ve listened carefully to Communication Authority’s Director General, Francis Wangusi’s speech and he did not say that.  He was trying to support the Huduma Namba by expressing its importance in helping SIM card registration, which is there to protect us from fraudsters and terrorists.  Press then badly misquoted him out of context.

Myth 3: Huduma Namba is not the number of the devil

So I originally come from a country where we have well established IT systems containing citizen data, which are increasingly being linked together to the benefits of government and citizens.  Some of this data is licenced by government to private companies, covered of course under UK Data Protection act and now GDPR, which is also to the benefit of citizens.  We have no compulsory National ID card and have no requirement to carry any form of ID most of the time.  Let me share some examples of how data sharing makes citizens life easier.  I recently renewed my UK photo driving licence, I did it online sitting at my computer from my home in Kenya.  It asked me if wanted to use my digital photo image that on my passport, and I said yes since it speeded things up.  I paid online and 4 days later my new driving licence came in the post to my residence in UK.

Imagine government services like that?  Perhaps dream about it next time you are standing in the hot sun queuing at Nyayo House to renew your passport.

I’ve no problem with Government in UK having lots of info about me computer systems and I’ve no problem with them sharing that data with other agencies when I grant them permission to so.  And now I’m resident in Kenya I’ve no problem with Government of Kenya having more information stored on me especially if it helps them to deliver services much better, without corruption, without queues, without time and fuss.  But I do have a problem that there is no Data Protection act in place in Kenya, and we really must push to pass the bill in Parliament into law.

What we are actually talking about is digital transformation of government.  Digital transformation is not a single system or project, but really goes into complete digitization and transformation of all processes in the way you operate or do business.  Government initiatives to date including iTax, eCitizen, the smart driving licence have done very well to completely revamp to our benefit the way we do things such as fill our tax returns.  Having to use such services online is also helping with digital literacy but needs to be carefully monitored to not deepen the digital divide, leaving the most disadvantaged members of society digitally excluded.

Huduma Namba is intended to give one number to interlink all government services, a number of identity, “one ring to rule them all”.  It’s a complex system and project behind it and I can see reasons that GoK has opted to create a new identity, with biometrics, following in the path of India which went the same way.  In Kenya, with lack of physical addressing system, identity is a challenge. The KRA PIN is a good use of a government number but so many millions have no PIN and have never paid tax.  Far more have a phone and the mobile number has become the defacto identification source, but this is not in government control even with SIM card registration, a necessary sticking plaster to link the mobile phone number to the person.

I think there would have been other options considered, such as digitizing and improving the existing population registration system (IPRIS) or extending coverage of the PIN number to all citizens, tax payers or not.  But cross cutting inter-ministerial projects have complex and challenging decision-making processes.  In 2017/18 Kenya had 3.2 Million taxpayers (including foreign residents), 19 Million voters, and 49 million citizens.  Who’s right?

It may be expensive but decision has been taken and of the way forwards is to collect data again, and with that in mind ours is to do the needful to register, and then hold government to account later if the project does not succeed.

However, back to digital transformation.  No one project will digitally transform a nation and manual paper driven back end processing and service delivery at dilapidated government offices needs to move fast into the digital age.  This requires a huge movement of IT skills development, investment in computers and tablets for government employees, as well as mega projects like Huduma Namba.  Huduma Namba registration collects a lot of data, asking for your children, your marriage status and ID of spouse and even if you are a farmer.   But that data stands to be out of date after month one, if there is no way to digitize the processes of marriages, births and deaths, linking that to modify and update the Huduma Namba database.

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