OPINION: Improving tax language a key aspect of advanced public finance management

OPINION: Improving tax language a key aspect of advanced public finance management

By Leonard Wanyama 

A recent press release by Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) Board Chairman Anthony Ng’ang’a Mwaura is causing a great deal of consternation within the tax community in the country.

For one, such as myself, who has had a baptism by fire in tax advocacy, the statement’s use of words interchangeably- as synonyms- without reference to relevant legislation is a mistake.

Revenue collection debates are generally a “minds” discussion as opposed to a “hearts” conversation.

This, therefore, makes the choice of words -such as refunds, exemptions, waivers, abandonments, reliefs, incentives, or payments- have very specific legal meanings for purposes of clear interpretation.

Moreover, broader public understanding is key to ensure compliance with the law or else any confusion opens an opportunity for tax avoidance and evasion.

Such incidents further complicate an existing challenge of connecting the “technical language barriers” between tax practitioners, academics, legislators, journalists, activists, and citizens.

How then can we bridge the communication gap between the niche group of legal or accounting professionals and a wider audience of interested parties that continues to grow?

Local, national, regional, continental, and global tax issues must be fused to the relevant political or policy agenda in order for them to make sense. A concept in and of itself, will not make sense if not linked to individual needs it must address.

Consequently, speaking politics intelligently must correspond to talking about policy contextually and vice versa. 

Essentially if the idea of a “tax suspension” is the beginning of translating what a “Hustler Revenue Collection Plan” is, then it must clearly be so on account of existing law.

Otherwise, the leadership and management of the KRA will come across as underhandedly perpetuating the extension of current political schisms. This goes contrary to making tax simpler and more relatable.

Tax is a representation of interests, an understanding of governance, an application of sanctions, pursuit of economic justice, and a platform for civic education.

Its communication must recognize this because it is at the heart of state formation and its transformation, hence it must not be taken so casually, especially within the context of constructing more responsible citizenship.

Subsequently, Board Chairman Mwaura’s statement will have a negative impact on policy consistency, revenue collection, institutional development, mobilization of taxpayers, and the historical record of KRA, not to mention the next quarter's targets.

On the reliability of policy, reports have thronged the news cycle as to industry concerns on how the statement unleashed unpredictability on account of the vagueness it projected.

Meanwhile, in a country suffering from serious tax apathy such a statement further erodes citizens' confidence in an institution that has consistently been viewed as an unresponsive and punitive government agency.

Likewise, the plans to convert KRA from an authority to a service are likely to be questioned as a disingenuous public relations exercise that is likely to gobble up massive resources without establishing any practical or beneficial change for citizens. 

Beyond the confusion, apathy, and doubts, KRA will increasingly deal with exacerbated taxpayer grievances for issues outside its remit. 

As things stand now KRA, as tax the collector, must constantly deal with public anger on questions that are unrelated to their mandates such as inequitable allocations, improper expenditures, or fiscal irregularities because of their direct link to citizens.

Reaching out to citizens in such contexts becomes an uphill battle because KRA cannot respond to why roads are not being built, water is not available, and schools have no books or hospitals with no medicine, yet it announces achieving its quarterly or annual targets.

Lastly, as witnessed in the recent Strathmore Tax Research Center Students Hackathon, every tax action by KRA or the Ministry of Finance is a matter of historical record for study in understanding domestic revenue mobilization in Kenya.

Consequently, the statement sets a bad precedent for policy implementation studies because it is an example of a return to haphazard declarations from previous times that are long gone following the establishment of a new constitutional order in the country. 

The author is the regional coordinator of the East African Tax and Governance Network (EATGN). Twitter: @lennwanyama.


KRA Public Finance Management Anthony Ng’ang’a Mwaura

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