PesaCheck is East Africa’s first fact-checking initiative. It seeks to help the public separate fact from fiction in public pronouncements about the numbers that shape our world, with a special emphasis on public finance. PesaCheck also tests the accuracy of media reportage. To find out more about the project, visit PesaCheck.org. Read more about IBP’s involvement with PesaCheck here.
This post originally appeared on PesaCheck.org as “My Journey as a PesaCheck Fellow: Reflections on Budget Fact-checking in the Kenyan Context” on 30 March 2017.
It has been an incredible year for me as a PesaCheck fellow, working with the best minds in civic tech, open data, and policy in Kenya to keep our media and politicians accountable to their statements. Now more than ever, individuals and intermediary organizations need to cultivate a culture of fact-checking given that misinformation is rife with changing global socio-political dynamics and the era of ‘fake news’. This article will however not belabor the critical need for fact-checking — my colleagues have done a good job of that. Rather, I will offer reflections on key lessons I have learned working as a PesaCheck fellow, which I hope will be helpful to anyone interested in running a similar initiative.
Source and collect data from credible sources.
This is the most obvious lesson to share but I think requires emphasis. It is imperative to use credible sources. The most embarrassing thing for a publication that aims to set the record straight, is for it to become a source of misinformation. This means that as much as possible, using official documentation or citing individuals who can comment on your analysis in an official capacity. I avoid using other newspaper articles to fact-check my articles as these are not primary sources and original facts are prone to distortions or inaccuracies due to the interpretation/bias of the author/reviewing editors.
There are several ways to acquire data for fact-checking and in the case of public finances, budget documents are not the only source at our disposal. In Kenya, we are lucky to have e-government initiatives where additional documents can be found such as local ministry websites, the national bureau of statistics, Kenya Open Data Initiative, research institutions as well as international organizations that publish relevant official statistics. I generally consult the documents in the order listed when sourcing for information and if these are not sufficient, I turn to Code for Kenya and the International Budget Partnership Kenya, to reach out to their networks with formal request for data to support a claim provided. It is also useful to request them for supporting evidence using official records/data. It has been most difficult however, to run fact-checks on stories/reporting from counties as not all counties have mature processes for availing all the necessary budget documents in the public domain.
I have, however, observed inconsistencies in official documents released with several budget documents giving different statistics on the same parameter. For instance, the approved budget allocation for a program in a year can be different depending on whether one is looking at the published program-based budget, or the more in-depth development and recurrent volumes with the budget breakdown. I find it is important to note or highlight the inconsistency as part of the fact-check, which raises another point of accountability that should be addressed by the relevant authority.
Be objective and fair.
This is also another point that cannot be overstated. It is imperative for a fact-checking initiative to remain objective (among other standard principles exercised by fact-checking initiatives globally). This means that we can’t only be impartial to certain media outlets or politicians but fact-check any significant claim that we come across regardless of the entity that makes it. This also means you must fact-check a quotable/citable claim made and not provide your own opinions on the general views/leanings of an entity. “So and so said this, this is why it is FALSE/TRUE” is a general format I use to establish and check claims.
Objectivity also requires us to check and validate true claims especially in instances where the story is of significant public interest and the facts are likely to be misconstrued in one way or other. If it is a true claim that seems exaggerated or improbable based on the general public opinion, this is a good fact-check to emphasize on the truth in the claims and use that opportunity to provide more context on the matter.
There is no such thing as an easy fact-check.
There are several times that the figures and processes provided are obviously wrong but given the complexity of budget issues, it is more often than not necessary to provide context . To do so, it requires some time thinking and finding tactics to present the context in a manner that is not too technical but does not remove from the complexity of the context/situation. Sometimes, the analysis provided by a reporter goes off on a different tangent even if the numbers cited are correct. Other times it is what is not said that needs to be articulated to provide context. For example, there was an article that analyzed how funds allocated to hospitality in a county budget could been put to better use to building ICU units in local hospitals. What the reporter failed to mention is that the county had actually allocated an amount in their budget to build the same ICU units. To be able to provide such context requires one to be very familiar with the subject. This allows you to decipher whether or not you need to dig deeper to provide the correct facts. A majority of the time spent when fact-checking is taken up by research to provide context.
In several instances, the articles conflate several false claims and to fact-check these one needs to be tactful. A good approach I use is to lay the claims out separately and distinctly, then fact-check each separately. Alternatively, one can provide a cohesive narrative that builds upon why each of the claims made are false when the claims can be corrected using the same fact.
Simplify but do not misinform.
Budgets are quite complex to analyze. However, given that PesaCheck aims to have mass impact, it is important to narrate the fact-check in lay terms as opposed to providing a pure technical analysis. Nevertheless, it is important not to misinform by providing inappropriate examples or false comparatives in an attempt to make the piece relatable (e.g. stating that funds X or Y could build a road or a school instead). In fact, I generally avoid this.
From these lessons learned, fact-checking public finance issues may seem difficult. Indeed, it is not very straightforward but over time it gets easier to do as one becomes better acquainted with budget data and resources. Editorial meetings, collective assistance in identifying relevant articles to be fact-checked, subject matter expertise within as well as an extensive network at my disposal made fact-checking much easier to do, given the part-time nature of the fellowship.
Not only am I now attuned to pay more attention and be more critical of media reporting and the claims our political figures make, but I have also gone through a crash course in civics, particularly on government budgets in Kenya and the robust legal framework that exists to guide public finance management. We are experiencing the growing pains of devolution, similar to those that accompany any changes in systems, but I believe that from our constitution and the political will that exists for open government, we have a solid foundation over which to build active citizen participation particularly in the budget cycle. Fact-checking initiatives such as PesaCheck are critical in informing such participation. I am proud to have contributed to Kenya’s first budget fact-checking initiative.
This post was written by PesaCheck Fellow Leo Mutuku, who is co-founder and chief executive at a data-science consultancy in Nairobi. The infographics are by PesaCheck Fellow Brian Wachanga, who is a Kenyan civic technologist interested in data visualisation. The report was edited by PesaCheck Coordinator/Editor Florence Sipalla with fact-checking by IBP-Kenya country lead Dr Jason Lakin.