The debate about the public wage bill is welcome, though it comes a year after it ought to have taken place. Soon after the 2013 elections, an intense battle was witnessed between the Salaries and Remuneration Commission and MPs over the latter’s pay.
That should have been the time to set the policies to rein in the public wage bill. The Executive stayed away from the tussle and failed to offer leadership, and MPs had their way.
Public servants in Kenya belong largely to two categories — the senior ones who are grossly pampered and the others who can hardly make ends meet. Asking the latter to accept pay cuts would be unfair. For the top echelons, these cuts are just a small dent to their earnings. They earn all manner of allowances.
Addressing the huge wage bill through voluntary salary cuts is unlikely to yield much. A remuneration policy should be formulated to guide public sector salaries and check the inequalities perpetuated by the system.
A better approach to reducing and controlling the wage bill is to stop the many ways through which public resources are lost — corruption, imprests and allowances.
Corruption is pervasive in the public sector. Ghost workers, for example, can only be created and exist through corruption. Weeding them out is not enough. Those responsible for their existence should be punished and forced to pay what has been lost.
The system of allowances in public service should be revisited. The so-called sitting allowances are unjustifiable when an employee is on a salary. It amounts to double payment and should be abolished.
For instance, public officers who serve in ad hoc commissions and various task forces receive honoraria of varying amounts. Nothing can be done by task forces without this allowance.
It is an incentive to serve in these capacities and an important source of patronage as senior staff use their positions to confer direct benefits to those they favour.
In an assignment that lasts several months, a public officer will make every month in excess of his or her monthly salary. Staff who serve in temporary commissions and task forces are doing what they are employed to do. While they discharge these “special” duties, they are unavailable to do their day-to-day work.
There are other allowances the public should not be funding such as gymnasium and sports club membership. In a country struggling to provide the most basic of services to its population, it is unjustifiable and immoral to spend public money on issues that are not essential for the discharge of official functions.
The entire benefits system built around what an officer earns should be scrutinised to determine what constitutes matters of personal comfort.
The recent auditors report raised issues about imprest accounting. This is but the tip of the iceberg. Imprests have become a source of slush funds for senior government officials to use virtually as they wish. All that is required is approval within the system and documents to support this expenditure.
The system is so loose that it has been consistently abused through forged accounting documents.
The rules governing the process of acquiring imprests are very clear and stringent. First none should be processed for a person with another outstanding one. Secondly, the imprest should be retired within 48 hours upon return from official duty.
Lastly, unretired imprest is recoverable in full from the salary of the holder. That an audit would find unretired imprest running into years shows clear dereliction of duty that should be punished.
The President has trained his focus on salary cuts to manage the public wage bill, but the devil is in the undue allowances granted to public servants.