The Public Sector Reforms Programme is barely breathing six months after the initiative moved to the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC), effectively weaning them from the direct supervision of Vice-President Saulos Chilima.
Interviews with multiple sources—including local government councils, OPC; ministries, departments and agencies (MDA)—have shown little contact between the reforms unit at the OPC and implementing agencies.
One district commissioner (DC) mused in an interview that after six months of silence, local councils and MDAs received a letter this month from the OPC’s Public Sector Reforms Management Office demanding quarterly progress reports.
In the letter to the DCs, Chief Director for Public Sector Reforms in the OPC, Seodi White, asked for submission of reports by October 13 2017.
In the memo Nation Online has seen, White broke down the quarterly reports as from July to September 2017; October to December 2017; January to March 2018 and April to June 2018.
But the DC said: “We were looking for direction, which we have not received yet. It is only now that we are being told to start sending reports. One wonders what we are going to write as there has not been support from the office.”
This lack of support, according to various officials we talked to, is contrary to the consistent backstopping and overall strategic direction they were getting when the reforms were under the Vice-President-led Public Service Reforms Commission, whose mandate expired in January this year and its work moved to OPC.
An OPC source corroborated the DC’s concerns, saying “very few activities were being undertaken” by the reforms office due to, among other things, lack of funding and absence of clarity on how to proceed with the reforms.
Said the OPC official: “It is hazy. There is not much engagement with MDAs. Consultation meetings with the district councils have almost ceased. The intensity and aggression of the implementation of the reforms are almost gone.
“The current leadership went to the donors for funding, but were sent back to develop a concept note and up to now they have not developed or submitted the concept note.”
The leadership vacuum for the reforms programme could shove the initiative onto its deathbed where it might join 80 other past efforts to change how the public sector conducts business for efficient and effective service delivery in the country.
But in a separate interview last week, White said the reforms were on track, adding that many MDAs were working day and night to ensure that President Peter Mutharika’s vision of an effective, efficient and professional public service is realised.
“Seventeen  ministries, 60 parastatals and 35 local councils all have reforms approved by the Head of State. Our job is to ensure that these are implemented,” she said.
But critics are not impressed.
Ralph Mhone, a member of the parliamentary committee on Governance Assurance and Public Sector Reforms, said in an interview this week that there is “nothing moving on the ground”.
Mhone, a lawyer and Nkhata Bay Central (People’s Party-PP) legislator, added that as an oversight committee, they are finding it hard to track the status of the reforms.
“There is need for the unit to come up with a timeline on implementation plan. There is also need for interaction with the committee. These exchanges are good for the exchange of ideas,” he said, adding that his committee has only met the current Chief Director once.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) deputy secretary general Eisenhower Mkaka said public sector reforms have good intentions; but there is poor implementation.
He said: “The reforms were politicised and they are not bearing the desired fruits. We need political will to bring about radical governance and civil reforms.”
Analysts, on the other hand, say only a comprehensive evaluation of the reforms can determine level of progress.
Lewis Dzimbiri, professor of public administration specialising in industrial relations and human resource management and development at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, said it is hard for the public to know what progress is being made.
“I am an independent assessor on public service delivery. I can say there are a lot of changes going on in ministries and departments, which people might not notice,” he said.
Political analyst Henry Chingaipe said lack of publicity or availability of it cannot be a benchmark.
For the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)—an early backer of the reforms—any public sector changes must be an integral part of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS III). MGDS III is currently under formulation.
In a written response to a questionnaire, UNDP resident representative Mia Seppo said: “Reforms call for transformation of organisational structures, a merit-based public service, transparent processes and procedures for improved service delivery.”
She said the UN was working with a number of MDAs, adding that UNDP and the UN family were supporting government to ensure the reforms are integrated in the next MGDS.
The current uncertain status of reforms could vindicate some analysts’ fears expressed when the President relocated the public sector reforms from the Vice-President’s office to OPC.
Analysts pointed out that OPC had failed 80 times to implement reforms in the past; therefore, moving the initiative there would simply kill off the reforms agenda.
In its exit report released early this year, the disbanded Chilima-chaired commission observed that one of the reasons previous reform efforts failed was lack of political will.
Thus, the commission recommended that the President should re-launch the Public Service Reform Programme to raise its profile and visibility and to have the whole nation rally behind the reform and transformation agenda.
Reads the exit report in part: “The President should be the sole sponsor of reforms at the national level and that a permanent Public Service Reform Commission be created to ensure that the reforms are being monitored and evaluated and that there is continued momentum in the medium to long term.”
The February 2017 exit report, presented in March, observed that it was essential for the reforms to gather real momentum and start making an impact.
It added that success symbols of the process as well as on the ground demonstrating tangible improvements in public service delivery to people would also help in wider acceptance of the need for and benefits of reform.
“There is, therefore, a need for comprehensive transformation, addressing issues not only in the public service, but also the issues of ethics, values and responsibility in the whole of society,” reads the report.