For slightly over 12 months since January 2012, I served as the Legal Advisor to the Prime Minister. It was a position that placed me at the highest levels of the Civil Service, with a pay grade of Job Group “U”, otherwise known as “PS level”.
What I learnt and observed about government in that short period of time makes me conclude that the President’s attempt at bringing down the wage bill by taking a 20 per cent pay cut, and enforcing the same across the board, is incredibly naive. (READ: Backlash meets Uhuru’s move to take salary cut)
The problem with the exorbitant public wage bill is not the salaries. In fact, I think it is a good thing that the government is now able to attract competent staff and Kenyans will benefit from good public service, less corruption and thus a more productive private sector.
The problem with Kenya’s wage bill is wastage and abuse. All the way from State House to the tea room at the ministries, tax payers’ money is lost through wasteful use of resources and abuse of authority.
The first encounter I had with waste was when a requisition was made for furniture to my office. As a senior government officer, I was entitled to my own colour printer, computer, laptop, ipad, television, document shredder and water dispenser.
I have never seen such wasteful use of resources in the private sector in Kenya. In the commercial sector, printers are shared by many offices, as are water dispensers, shredders and televisions. And laptops are only issued to persons engaged in field work.
At the end of the month, I received my airtime allowance in the form of cards from various service providers. The total amount was Sh27,000.
If there is one thing my relatives, friends and subordinates miss from my service in government it is free airtime. Because try as I did, I couldn’t spend more than Sh7,000 of the allocation. And I got new cards every month.
And though I took only about three to five cups of tea in the office, I learnt that my secretary was entitled to pick Sh20,000 to Sh40,000 to make my tea every month.
I was entitled to tea, coffee or hot chocolate as I desired and to a choice of sugar or honey for my sweetener.
There were no less than ten senior offices to whom this allocation was made and many of us never got to know how much was picked or spent on our office accounts.
The fault, I came to learn, was not with the senior officers. The rules of service set these entitlements and they accrue as a matter of course.
This account is just a tip of the iceberg.
I was also entitled to an official car, armed driver, armed bodyguard and two Police guards at the house.
Personally I did not think anyone was looking out to harm me so I only took an official car and an armed driver which I used during working hours. But I have observed that since the NARC government of 2003, the use of police security has become increasingly abused.
It is surprising that in the Moi government, with all its excesses, one never witnessed the almost comical spectacle we are being treated to everyday on our street where every minister, senator and governor is running around with several chase cars blaring sirens and a security detail at the expense of the taxpayer.
Without doubt our Cabinet Secretary in charge of internal security and his Permanent Secretary need to be accorded some serious security but who wants to harm the cabinet secretaries in charge of such mundane responsibilities like fisheries, sports or economic planning?
Sometimes in the process of work, it requires ad hoc committees to be formed by members of the same department or ministry, or sometimes members from various ministries, to see through a process or discuss an issue.
When this happens, tea must be served at 10a.m. and at 4p.m. together with snacks. The snacks will be a samosa, a sausage and a ndazi per person. And lunch too. Standard lunch order in most of the meetings I attended was Chinese.
I think it is sad that for the level of service the civil service gives Kenyans, it would be having Chinese lunches at the tax payers’ expense.
And when the work is done, the committee members would be paid an allowance for serving in that committee. This goes anywhere from Sh10,000 to Sh50,000 per person. If it is a gazetted task force, the sum would be a few hundred thousand shillings. Never mind that these allowances are being paid for work that everyone was employed to do in the first place, and will be paid for with a salary at the end of the month.
But to make this bad situation worse, there are kingpins in the accounts offices of almost every government department that control all payments with absolute discretion to pay or deny.
These big wigs’ names must be put in every payment list for money to be approved. So for every committee or task force requisitions, these kingpins earn sitting allowances as a matter of course.
Their names must also appear in every list of per diem payments for people travelling out of station.
I heard of accountants who make at least Sh500,000 in a dry month through these illegal payments.
But it is not just the lower cadre bigwigs who exercise these abuses. I learnt that all senior government Ministers have confidential accounts that run into millions of shillings from which they are authorised to spend money without the scrutiny of the Auditor General, or the Controller of Budget, or Parliament.
These monies are allocated directly from the Treasury and are replenished as they are spent at the direction of the Minister of Finance.
The worst abuser of this confidential spending was the Office of the Head of the Civil Service and the Presidency at State House.
I don’t know but I have heard that the President’s confidential account often runs into billions of shillings and in the last regime was the cause of the short and tumultuous tenures of many a Comptroller of State House under whose office the account is operated.
In this day and age, it is unbelievable that any office in the public service can spend millions of shillings at its discretion without any budgetary approvals and with immunity from any form of scrutiny, even from Parliament.
This picture of abandon, waste and abuse would not be complete without mentioning two other practices.
One is foreign travel. We have too many Cabinet secretaries, permanent secretaries and other senior government officers are flying out to attend meetings that are not critically necessary to the tax payer or that can be attended by diplomatic mission representatives.
In many instances, the President, Deputy President and Cabinet Secretaries are accompanied by staff and other people )whose presence and services are totally irrelevant to the taxpayer who pays for their travel.
There is no guideline in government regarding what is essential travel or who are essential personnel. In many instances, the work being done during these travels can be completed by foreign missions and the knowledge being sought can be learnt from the internet.
A similar wasteful practice is the going for retreats to do work that can be easily done at the office. In these retreats, all manner of staff members jump into the bus for the free tours. They collect allowances for these attendances while others, who never left the office, are also on the allowances list. But let’s not go there.
The second practice that I must mention in closing is training at the East and Southern Africa Management Institute at Arusha, Tanzania. Popularly known as ESAMI, this institute is a regional training centre owned by ten member governments to train senior government officers in critical areas of management.
However, this Institute has become the place where some Permanent Secretaries sent their sycophants at the ministry and their girlfriends to while away their time and earn allowances. Many senior officers who qualify and deserve to go don’t get a chance.
Some people are known to have attended many times over while others wait for a single chance. And when they attend, they are not only paid full salary but are paid allowances that run into hundreds of thousands of shillings for being out of station.
These are just some of the wasteful practices that are a culture in Kenya’s civil service which the President should be addressing. I want to believe that he is not being briefed on the full picture but I remember that he has served for more than a decade as a Cabinet Minister and five years as a deputy Prime Minister.