Inside the rot: The costly public service absurdities crying for urgent, serious decisions

Zimbabwe’s civil servants during a pay protest

WHEN a team from the Public Service Commission turned up at Mbiriyadi Primary School in Nyanga for a staff audit and headcount three years ago, the head handed them attendance registers. Hawk-eyed officials quickly spotted an anomaly.

Names of pupils were repeated in several grades, creating ghost pupils that raised the pupil enrolment to 240, to justify a staff complement of six teachers, the auditors found. The school’s actual enrolment level was 109 pupils.

Government regulations stipulate teaching staff ratios of 1:40 for primary schools and 1:33 for secondary schools.

The rules also require heads of schools with less than 281 pupils to take on some teaching duties.

To get around this, heads at schools such as Gunde in Buhera, Majiji in Bubi, Gumira and Ngaone in Chipinge as well as Somvubu Secondary School in Bubi, devised a plan.

They requisitioned technical-vocational teachers knowing fully well that their schools did not have the equipment and capacity to offer these subjects.

Once deployed to the schools, the technical-vocational teachers were used to take classes that the school heads should have taken.

These are just some examples of the absurdities unearthed by the Public Service Commission’s 2015 audit, ordered by government as it battled a burgeoning wage bill, at a time when revenues were falling.

ABSENTEE YOUTH OFFICERS

At the time of the audit, conducted between February and April 2015, government employed 3,463 youth officers. The youth officers could not be found at their workstations, but “they later surfaced for the purpose of enumeration,” according to the audit report.

“Information gathered indicates that some of these youth officers might be gainfully employed elsewhere.”
Despite a high concentration of youth officers in urban wards, five in each, “there was no evidence of specific projects youth officers were undertaking,” the report adds.

It also noted duplication of functions, with the same government also deploying ward development coordinators under the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development, whose projects the auditors found to be ‘more visible.’

“In rural wards, most youth officers operate in the same ward where there are extension workers from other ministries. During the audit, evidence gathered indicated that youth officers claim ownership of projects initiated and managed by other extension workers at ward level,” the audit found.

As if that was not enough, a total of 121 agricultural extension workers were found to be deployed in non-agricultural urban areas.

OVERSTAFFING

The audit also found that state technical and teachers’ colleges were overstaffed by as many as 1,716 lecturers.

At Mutare Polytechnic College, for instance, the Cosmetology course had just one student enrolled when the audit took place, but with four lecturers assigned to the course. The Industrial Clothing course, with 25 students, had nine lecturers. Fashion design (13 students, 6 lecturers), Music (12 students, three lecturers) and Art and Design (11 students, three lecturers).

At Bulawayo Polytechnic, the Adult Education department had 19 students and an equal number of lecturers, while at St Peter’s Kubatana Technology Centre, a willing two lecturers for the national certificate in wood machining and manufacturing technology had no students to teach.

Harare Polytechnic had student to lecturer ratios ranging from 1:5 to 1:11 at the time of the audit.

Government was also paying the salaries of 2,888 teachers working a private and trust schools, incurring nearly $20 million annually.

GHOST WORKERS

Each time civil service reforms are mentioned, the subject of ghost workers on the government payroll inevitably comes up.

Opposition officials, citing a 2010 report by Ernst & Young that was never made public by the 2009-2013 power-sharing government, frequently claim that government ghost workers number as many as 70,000. The latest audit acknowledge the earlier one had been caught up in politics.

“In 2010 there was a Payroll and Skills Audit Report by Ernst and Young (India), some of whose recommendations could not be fully implemented because they were polarised by the political environment obtaining in the inclusive government,” reads part of the 2015 audit report.

The 2015 audit, however, recorded 3,307 people on the payroll, who could not be accounted for, despite costing the state $21 million in salaries per year.

FISCAL SPACE

During his parliamentary address on Wednesday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa repeated his call for a change in the work culture among government employees. Although he did not specifically mention job cuts in the civil service, Mnangagwa spoke about the need to create fiscal space. With the government wage bill taking up 70% of all revenue, Mnangagwa will inevitably have to look at the size of the civil service to achieve that goal.

Government had planned to spend $3.3 billion on its wage bill in 2018, but, after being pressured by its employees to agree to wage increases just before the July elections, this figure will be close to $4 billion, or nearly 80% of total revenue.

The wage increases were largely responsible for the $1.4 billion budget deficit registered in the first half of the year, against a full-year projection of $700 million.

Previous efforts to restructure and cut down on the civil service fell victim to the policy lethargy and general dysfunctionality that gripped former President Robert Mugabe’s administration during its dying days.

But the 2015 civil service audit report remains a useful resource.

The audit’s 34 proposed measures, included the abolition of some 21,000 posts that were vacant at the time – saving $129 million annually – withdrawal of government-funded teachers from private schools ($19.8 million savings per year), elimination of duplication of various extension services at ward level ($24 million saving), reduction in student teacher allowances and changes in vacation leave policy for teachers, which would save $47 million.

It also called for the cessation of salary payments to some 3,307 ghost workers, who were costing the taxpayer $21 million every year.

In total, the proposals would reduce the annual wage bill by almost $400 million, more than 10% of total employment costs.

SETBACK

On July 27, 2018, as everyone’s focus was on the general election due three days later, the Labour Court delivered a ruling that set back government’s plans to cut the wage bill.

Acting on the 2015 audit recommendations, government indefinitely cancelled vacation leave for teachers in January 2016.

The Zimbabwe Teachers’ Association (Zimta) challenged the decision in court and won in a ruling made late last month.
The reinstatement of vacation leave is a considerable blow for government.

At the time of the 2015 audit, there were nearly 7,000 teachers on vacation leave and an equal number of relief teachers. Cancelling vacation leave for them would save nearly $50 million that year alone.

In cancelling the leave, which teachers are entitled to after serving for seven continuous years, government argued that teachers enjoy three and a half months of vacation per year anyway, during school holidays. A teacher on three months vacation leave would, therefore, be away from work for nearly seven months in a year, on full pay.

During the three month vacation period, government would also pay a relief teacher.

STRONG MEDICINE

Although new Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube sought to lower expectations of radical civil service reforms, the fact remains that decisive action has to be taken to lower government’s employment costs.

In June, Mnangagwa appointed Vincent Hungwe, holder of a PhD in development planning from Cornell, who has worked as a policy adviser at the United Nations’ Development Programme, as head of the country’s public service commission. The president hopes Hungwe, who replaced the long-serving Mariyawanda Nzuwah, has the stomach to administer the necessary strong medicine to what is a complex problem, as well as the nous to navigate what looks like treacherous terrain.

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Source: newZWire

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