Broken system: The e-Citizen nightmare

e-Citizen platform

Long queues were witnessed at the Coast General Teaching and Referral Hospital in Mombasa after the roll out of payments for services through the e-Citizen platform. Kenyans seeking various services have complained of difficulties in using the system, from inordinate delays to complete lack of services.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It was meant to ease access to public services by enabling Kenyans to apply and pay for them at their convenience, away from the frustrating bureaucracies in government premises.

However, several months after the government announced the transition of all its services to the e-Citizen portal, it has been chaos and confusion for millions of Kenyans who can’t access the services they so desperately need. When they do, it is with more difficulty than before.

e-Citizen has aggregated more than 19,000 public services and created a single mobile payments account through which people pay.

There has, however, been a complete failure of the system to deliver some services, delays while delivering others and attempts from within government to frustrate the transition to e-Citizen by rogue officials who are against the change as they benefited from the manual system.

The disruptions cut across different sectors. In some hospitals that Nation visited, patients are forced to wait for hours to be served due to delays in the processing of their payments. Sometimes they go back home untreated. Entrepreneurs have challenges registering new businesses, while the multi-billion shilling vehicles trade has ground to a halt.

Second-hand motor vehicle dealers are currently stuck with thousands of vehicles they imported but cannot register after the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) system crashed during transition from the Transport Integrated Management System (Tims) to e-Citizen.

The Kenya Auto Bazaar Association said NTSA had initially prepared car dealers for a four-day halt of services, but since the year started, all services had stalled.

“What it means is that we have vehicles that are supposed to be registered but haven't been and you cannot sell a vehicle that is not registered since you need a logbook. The financial institutions cannot finance buyers without the official logbooks,” said the association’s secretary-general Charles Munyori.

An estimated 90 per cent of the vehicles sold by the traders are financed through bank loans. The car dealers are stuck with units whose ownership details they are unable to change, a prerequisite for loan release.

“All those vehicles that came towards the end of December are still held in Mombasa because they have not been cleared. We are looking at an average of 6,000 vehicles a month, and others that came before December. We are looking at huge losses,” Mr Munyori said.

More than 10,000 motor vehicles are registered in the country monthly, according to Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Photo credit: POOL|NMG

Stuck with applications for financing of vehicles that have held transactions worth billions of shillings, bankers on January 29 wrote to NTSA raising eight concerns regarding the e-Citizen portal as they sought interventions to unlock the mess.

In the letter by KBA Chairman John Gachora to NTSA Director-General George Njao, the bankers complained that following migration of NTSA services to e-Citizen, banks and customers are unable to access services, including transferring ownership, applying for vehicle inspections, reflective number plates, duplicate logbooks, changing vehicle particulars and vehicle searches.

“A number of our customers have had to park their vehicles due to lack of valid inspections and we request this be addressed,” Mr Gachora said.

The bankers also noted that the e-Citizen platform has not provided standalone accounts for organisations, which has seen institutions access services through personal accounts of their officials. “This presents a risk of misuse and fraud, and it is our request that these two accounts (have) separate log in credentials.”

Banks have been reluctant to transact on e-Citizen, citing the many weaknesses they feel are leaving them exposed to fraud and possible loss of funds. As they withhold their money, car dealers have been starved of funds they were targeting to use to pay their suppliers. Fears are growing that the turn of events could tarnish their funding relationships.

“We have talked to NTSA but all they are telling us is to give them time to solve the problem. We have told them to communicate to the public that they have a problem but they have not done it. The silence is very frustrating,” Mr Munyori said.

Matatu owners also say they have not been getting services on the NTSA portal as they used to.

“Currently there is no processing of services happening and the whole motor industry has been affected. Services such as logbook transfer, registration of vehicles, application of number plates and processing of driving licences are not happening,” Matatu Owners Association Chairman Albert Karakacha said.

NTSA, in an email response by Anthony Nyongesa, a principal communication officer, told the Nation that it has relied on e-Citizen for nine years for some of its services without problems. It, however, did not address concerns on the inefficiencies that have affected services such as transfer of ownership inspection and registration of vehicles.

The e-Citizen management says 15,440 out of the 19,038 services offered by government have been fully on-boarded, with the remaining 3,598 partially on-boarded.

“Transition to the new paybill/gateway has been handled based on the criticality and sensitivity of the service being offered. Some services are very critical and transition is handled with a lot of caution where both old and new process are allowed to run in parallel for some time as we transition to the new platform. In cases where the service is not critical, we implement abrupt changeover, where we stop the use of the old platform/process and migrate to the new one immediately,” e-Citizen Director-General Isaac Ochieng said.

A Treasury official admitted to the Nation that the multi-ministry support team had received concerns of service disruptions at NTSA through e-Citizen, indicating that they were being resolved.

In public hospitals, patients are being forced to endure long waiting periods owing to delays after they pay for services through e-Citizen.

Once a patient pays for a service through the single account (222222 for those using mobile money), they have to wait for a confirmation message which the hospital uses to ascertain their payments, which can take hours.

There have also been reports of Kenyans paying for services through the 222222 paybill number only for the money not to reflect on their accounts despite confirmations in their mobile money wallets. This happened with Ms Susan Wanyama, who expressed her frustrations after making a payment to the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) early January, only for her child to be denied treatment later.

“I have been paying NHIF for more than 10 years but the problem started this year after the change from the paybill number 2222000 to 222222. NHIF management maintains I last paid for the service in December 2023 but my Mpesa statement shows I paid on January 3, 2024, at 5.24pm,” Ms Wanyama said.

Dr Hilda Muteshi also said that it took the help of a friend she knows at e-Citizen to address an issue that had troubled her for five days after paying Sh13,150 to register a company through e-Citizen, only for the money not to reflect.

“I wrote an email that took time to be responded to and when it was, they asked me to give them the correct reference number. I pasted the exact M-Pesa message and I got a reply that I was not required to provide the message but the reference number, after that I did not get feedback on that email again,” Dr Muteshi said.

She also said attempts to have Safaricom reverse to her the funds she had paid failed since the company said only e-Citizen could do it. The e-Citizen customer support contacts did not go through.

The State Department for Housing, on the other hand, has been forced to refund some of those contributing to its affordable housing programme initiative through the Boma Yangu platform as Kenyans demanded their money back after their payments were not acknowledged.

“Not all payments reflect immediately on the client portal. Some payments are subject to confirmation before the service is offered. The verification process is a normal procedure before a service is offered,” said the Housing department in a statement.

The Nation witnessed delays experienced by Boma Yangu customers—a Kenyan who paid Sh3,000 service charge on Wednesday, February 7, had not received confirmation of receipt of funds by the time of going to press yesterday.

The Housing department admitted it had made refunds to some Kenyans but did not clarify whether they were done due to inefficiencies experienced on the e-Citizen portal.

“Kenyans generally access Boma Yangu services with minimal disruption. Deposits reflect on the wallets as they transact depending on the selected mode of payment. RTGS will take longer as the money clears,” it stated.

One person who spoke to the Nation indicated that he had had to wait for three weeks to get his driving license, a document that took less than a day to process when NTSA used the Tims system, while another one was still waiting for a number plate he paid for on January 30.

The e-Citizen portal has also struggled with service delivery on passport applications. While the platform is expected to schedule appointments for those visiting Immigration physically after applying on the platform, it has failed to schedule them based on the department’s capacity to handle applications, resulting in a chaotic situation where hundreds camp at the department daily, many leaving without being served.

Not all the departments within government are, however, struggling with poor services on e-Citizen. The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), for instance, says that it has fully on-boarded 19 services it offers to the public. “Kebs operates a consultative approach with the personnel manning the e-Citizen platform and the Treasury to address challenges arising from time to time,” it said.

The government has defended the e-Citizen platform, noting that it has boosted revenue collection from an average of Sh55 million to Sh350 million daily and provided Treasury with full visibility of revenues on a real-time basis, the fiscal behaviour of different agencies and sealed loopholes that were being used to siphon taxpayers’ money.

A multi-ministry team comprising of Treasury, Directorate of e-Citizen Services and ICT Authority are working hand-in-hand to ensure that disruptions are minimised and citizens' complaints addressed.

Agencies that primarily offer the service are expected to offer the first level of support to customers when they face challenges, but should the issue be technological or other system problems, it is escalated to the multi-ministry support team.

“Reported issues that cannot be handled by Level 2 support team are escalated to the platform vendors like Safaricom for internet and cloud hosting issues and Webmasters for application related matters /issues (Level 3 Support),” said head of digital payments at Treasury Silas Oswe.

e-Citizen has also been facing persistent cyber-attacks, which have in some instances blocked citizens from accessing services.

The Communications Authority’s latest report on detected cyberattacks in the country shows that the three-month period ending December 2023 had a 943 per cent increase in cyber threats detected. And government was one of the four industries most affected by the attacks.

“Majority of the (brute force) attacks were targeted at organisations within the ICT sector and government systems. Attackers targeted user login credentials and database servers belonging to government organisations and cloud-based services,” the report indicated.

An official from Treasury said the government is considering investing in better systems to create redundancies so that the systems have backups that pickup when attacks happen.

“The only kind of attack which we might experience is denial of service whereby the servers get overwhelmed, but in terms of loss of funds, it’s almost impossible. We had a denial of service attack which disrupted services for three days. It was a technological weakness but so far that has been addressed,” the official said.

With frustrations growing over the platform, some Kenyans have headed to the court with complaints ranging from disruption of services to charges.

Kilifi Senator Stewart Madzayo is in court over a Sh50 “e-Citizen access fee” that he complains is an unfair charge on Kenyans paying for services through the platform, especially those seeking low cost services. The fee is charged across all services. He went to court after being charged the fee when paying for parking at the Kenyatta National Hospital and entry fees at the National Museums of Kenya.

There have been reports that some state agencies are reluctant to let go of monies they have been collecting and spending at source for fear of the delays Treasury has always had disbursing funds to them, but none has come out to express the fears openly.

On the other hand, Treasury believes that some officials have been benefiting from weaknesses in the revenue collection systems and are frustrating the change.

“Majority of the MDAs (ministries, departments and agencies)are with us on the goal to mobilise more revenues for better service delivery to the citizens but there are some who are not with us,” an official said, noting that Treasury was cracking the whip on problematic agencies. The official said that Treasury has already seen cases where some MDAs are generating more revenues than were being reported when they were collecting on their own, which suggests they were not submitting every shilling.

Treasury’s goal is to eventually collect Sh1 billion daily, after all services are aggregated and revenue leakage loopholes sealed.

Treasury says that part of the controls it has put in place to protect public funds being channeled through the single account is approving only one account for each agency from which money from the pool of resources can be channelled to and validating one bank account to which money from the MDA’s account can be transferred before use.

“A team is in place to oversee the reconciliation process of the revenue collected and there is a scrutiny and approval process done by a team to ensure that funds are correctly settled to the respective MDAs’ banks accounts promptly,” Mr Oswe said.

Additional Report by Fred Muitiriri and Ibrahim Karanja