Of Public Sector Reforms in Malawi

The current Democratic Progressive Party government started with great expectations. The President and his top team talked of public sector reform, which they launched with great pomp and a sumptuous dinner. The man they chose to lead the effort, Vice President Saulos Chilima, is a highly regarded individual who steered Airtel Malawi as its first Malawian Chief Executive. There was no way that he, whose entity survived the rough-and-tumble of the commercial world, could fail to champion the effort of government’s business process re-engineering.

But reforming the public sector in Malawi required many things. A highly qualified PhD holder in knowledge management was just one part of the equation and political will the other. And what, exactly, do we mean by political will? It means President Peter Mutharika and the Democratic Progressive Party needed to make tough choices to streamline government activities so that service delivery could become more efficient and effective.

And what do we mean by tough choices? The President and his party needed to implement plans not for the sake of winning the next election but for the sake of the next generation.

Therein lay the problem. Which politician, in his or her right frame of mind, ever does things for the next generation? Every politician in our country today, I dare venture, aims only at the next election. Every night, when he or she lies in bed, the thought is always ‘What must I do to win?’

So out through the window political will went. The capable Vice President remained, but without solid ground to stand on.

Reforming the public sector was never going to be an easy task. I was a civil servant once, and I have a clear idea of what mess the civil service is in. When I joined as an accountant in one of the ministries, I was surprised to find I had 13 people under me, whereas all I needed were three. Among the 13 there was even a team of three or four – I now forget the exact number – whose job was to carry out bank reconciliation. This was 2001, and the Malawi government was about to implement the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS). To do so, all bank accounts needed to be reconciled. Despite the presence of a dedicated team for bank reconciliation, all bank accounts had not been reconciled for three years – since 1998! In those three years the three or four civil servants came to the office every day, boiled tea, took out a bawo board and played under the tree outside.

There are departments which, clearly, are overstaffed, whose numbers needed to be trimmed by large margins. But then, at the same time, there are sectors, such as health and education, that are severely understaffed. These needed to have their numbers boosted for more effective service delivery.

But that was not all. We needed to take a hard look at whether the entire structure needed to be revisited. There were about 96 principal secretaries at the time, in a country with 20 ministries. Maybe 56 needed to go. But what did the so-called reform do? Instead of releasing them from service, the government simply changed the titles of their jobs, from principal secretary to chief director! Their salaries, benefits etc are pretty much the same as before. They still receive 500 litres of fuel per month, for instance. Don’t laugh – but that, basically, is our reform.

To reform the public sector, the first thing that was required was to diagnose the root causes of the status quo. Quite often, we have wrong people in jobs they are not qualified to handle. They are there because of political appointments, transfers or dismissals made through presidential directives – not just this president but all the presidents in the past. In short, political interference is the main cause of the mess our civil service is in, as Sam Mpasu once observed. Our civil service no longer provides secure, rewarding, professional, respected and pensionable careers they used to. Civil servants are paid a pittance, leading to widespread demoralization. Frustration creeps in when Public Service Regulations are flouted as political types – mostly incompetent and inexperienced people associated with the party in power – are catapulted into senior positions. Career public servants lose hope of advancement since, for as long as they do not lick someone’s boot, they will never move up the ladder. Sometimes even when they lick the boot of the master, it all depends on which region or tribe they come from.

The reforms failed not because the reform team did not try. Below, for example, is their recommended action in a report dated 18 December, 2014:

a) Reduction in the number of Principal Secretaries (PSs) by fifty-six (56) from the current ninety-six (96) to forty (40).

b) This should be done through a transparent and consultative process in order to ensure fairness and credibility. This exercise will be done by deleting irrelevant portifolios, deploying some PSs and exiting those that may not be required within the system. A decent one-off exit package will be offered

c) For the entire Civil Service, look at the total structure and delete all irrelevant positions in order to come up with a lean and vibrant organisation.

d) Put a freeze on external hire in order to allow for re-deployment in the first phase in order to ensure best fit within the system.

Yet none of the above was implemented as recommended.

Again, in July 2014, the reform team recommended: “Principal Secretaries, Chief Executive Officers of Public institutions and other senior public officers should be allowed more time to attend their normal duties by only inviting to Presidential and other functions those officials whose presence is directly necessary and relevant to their duties.”

The reality is that they all flock to wherever the president shows up in public, regardless of whether or not their presence is directly necessary or relevant to their duties. We are running in the same spot we have always been since independence from Britain.

If you talk to the President, he will tell you, as an example of the reforms’ success, the fact that his government is developing a Public Sector Reforms Policy. He will also tell you that his government will establish the Malawi School of Government by merging the Malawi Institute of Management (MIM) and Staff Development Institute (SDI). He will also mention that his government has set up Integrated Public Service Centres, where you will find all the services provided by the Post Office, Malawi Revenue Authority, Department of Immigration, Directorate of Road Traffic Services, the Registrar General, and soon, the National Registration Bureau. The greatest achievement, he will tell you, is the national registration card, which he considers “monumental” – his words, not mine.

Maybe all the president says are good things, but they aren’t just the kind of reform that satisfies. I hope I am speaking for many when I say we want reform that is much more visible, much more felt, with a clear impact on generations to come.

To achieve that, politicians must start doing things to ensure we leave a better Malawi to the next generation and not to impress the population that will vote in the next election.

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