Inefficiency and infamy in public service

It never rains but pours on the reputation of the public service in Malawi. We thought the Cashgate revelation was the worst form of dishonesty and corruption to have taken place in the public service. Now, it seems the Cashgate is the tusk of the elephant; the main body has yet to be uncovered. I have used the metaphor tusk of the elephant instead of the tip of the iceberg because most Malawians like me have never seen an iceberg, but many have seen an elephant or its tusk.

Open The Nation dated Tuesday, September 29 2015 and read again the repellent heading More Rot in Councils. This news item and others before it tells us that in local government units such as district councils, millions of funds have been paid out without supporting documents to the recipients.

We still read of ghost workers receiving millions of kwacha. Ghost workers are names of people who might have worked for a ministry, but left it long ago and yet their names are still on the payrolls, someone collects and pockets payments.

The unhappy factor is that these thefts are being uncovered about five years after they took place. Why were they not uncovered earlier? We will be told that there was shortage of staff or donors no longer meet the cost of auditing. The cheeseparing funding of the audit has had indirect costs.

The costs are more than financial. They are in the form of reputation. With the dishonest or delayed accounting that goes on in local councils and ministries that harbour ghost workers, in the eyes and nostrils of donors, Malawi is a polecat. Cleaning up the mess is a gargantuan task but it must be done.

In Malawi these days, one hears a lot about the need to educate more scientists if the country is to develop. But the problem that the country is facing currently is death of honest, dedicated and competent administrators or managers. At no time since the British curved this country out of the African continent and established a protectorate has the civil service been staffed with so many well-educated men and women yet their performance has not been outstanding in efficiency and integrity.

I spent half of my civil service career during British rule. I remember that when a major problem was facing the country or the public service, government or the colonial office in London would appoint an independent committee to study the problem and make recommendations.

Of course, a reform commission has recently completed its work. It was a bit surprising, however, to learn that executives of parastatals had been asked to submit recommendations of how they will perform next. It is like asking a person under whose management a company has become insolvent or bankrupt to suggest better ways of doing his job. If he or she knows, why did he or she not make use of his knowledge instead of using the wrong methods until the company was facing closure?

The relationship between local authorities and parent ministries ought to be reviewed by someone detached. Under the prompting of donors, some levels of decentralisation have been implemented with little foresight. There were no safeguards against peculation. It now appears the sort of decentralisation that was introduced has done more harm than good.

The local authorities have been messing up things because central government officials have not been supervising them adequately. Admittedly, striking the right balance between local autonomy and central control is not easy. But suggestions must be invited on improving the situation.

It is time we revisited the job description of the chief secretary. This Cashgate scandal and the rot in the local authorities have been possible because apparently no one bears responsibility for the efficient and honest performance of the overall public services. Not business as usual, but innovation is what is urgent.


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