Hon. Folks, I never lived a moment to doubt that parastatals need changes of reformational — if not outright revolutionary — proportions. Many of them are a disgraceful liability on the taxpayer when they have nobody but themselves to compete with in providing services the public can do without.
But the way the Chilima Public Reforms Commission is going about the reform process of parastatals doesn’t inspire confidence at all. How on earth can giving a 30-day deadline for heads of the same failed parastatals to come up with turn-around plan be a shake-up strategy for these perennial non-performing state owned companies?
I was banking on the managerial acumen of reform commission head, Vice President Saulos Chilima, in the private sector to make a difference to the latter day attempt to shake up the inertia and drudgery that has has stood in the way of public sector’s insatiable hunger to grab and keep the winning card.
President Peter Mutharika reminded us the other day that government has probably tried seventy times or more to reform the public sector but to no avail. What we are left with is a sector that eats up 35 percent of the national wealth as measured in gross domestic product (GDP) but still looks so terribly famished that it can’t deliver anything efficiently and effectively.
There’s hardly a project that get’s done on time and all the funds for it accounted for. The result is that either we have projects such as the Jali-Phalombe-Mulanje-Chitakale Road stalling for years after already draining more than twice its original cost; or a teacher training programme that produces 10 000 extra teachers at K10 billion but none gets employed for years by our cash-strapped economy.
Billions of kwacha are lost every year refunding donors for government’s failure to play by the agreed-upon rules and billions more go down the drain in the name of corruption or botched contracts.
In government some employees can abandon work, go to Chipata in Zambia or Kyela in Tanzania to buy merchandise then spend days moving from one local market to another selling the items on retail, return to work after a week of absence and resume work as if nothing ever happened.
I’m not sure whether the Chilima reforms will address this but some concerned folks within opine that the reform programme may turn out to be just another miserable flop especially in the area of holding governments workers accountable for time and resource usage.
Now back to parastatals: by demanding a turn-around strategy from the same failed management, does the reform commission imply that these folks know what to do but were simply not doing it because nobody has so far demanded results?
If indeed the management theory that attributes 80 percent of an organisation’s success or failure on management is anything to go by (I believe government ascribes to it going by the remuneration package disparity between its top managers and the operatives), then it follows that the commission assumes that the managers can, in the worst case scenario, recommend their own removal from their comfort zones.
A major shake up at perennial loss making organisation rarely spares it’s management. This is so because management is responsible for both the strategy and culture of an organisation. Managers with tired ideas ought to be removed and not be asked to deliver that which they do not have.
In the case of parastatals, though, serious reforms cannot happen unless the perennial problem of political interference is addressed. And if the Chilima commission wants to tackle that in earnest then the starting point will be in the presidency itself.
From experience, boards appointed by the President have to a large extent grossly failed to provide effective strategic guidance to their respective parastatals. Instead, they have been a drainer on the parastatals (often demanding perks they are not entitled to) while adding little, if any, value.
In fact, presidents have in the past stashed parastatal boards with cronies as a thank you for their loyalty. As for executive management of parastatals, it’s only fair to acknowledge in most cases these are well qualified people.
The only problem is that all along security of tenure wasn’t based on being professional and ethical. It’s in the public sector that the sayings “you don’t eat ethics” and “you don’t bite the finger that feeds you” gained currency.
Executive managers of parastatals were praised and rewarded for wrong reasons — attending presidential functions, donating generously to the party in government, employing relations of powerful people in government (some with dubious qualifications) and, probably more importantly, acquiring supplies from companies owned by politicians at highly inflated prices.
If Chilima’s commission wants to address this then the broom should first sweep the OPC and other rooms at the Capital Hill. n