The recently announced "mergers," a process of collapsing, merging and absorbing autonomous state authorities/agencies into government ministries is likely to pose more challenges than anticipated. That thousands of civil servants are going to lose jobs is a given.
That there will be attempts to cannibalise and liquidate physical assets is also expected. But the human resource challenge of managing personnel who will be lucky to be absorbed from the agencies being collapsed into the ministry departments will require more than careful handling.
Information Minister and Cabinet spokesman Frank Tumwebaze has already hinted at a probable ego problem, where a director general or executive director or whatever grandiose title they bear of a hitherto powerful authority will be reluctant to be absorbed into a government ministry where s/he will at best be a commissioner.
Actually, Mr Tumwebaze talked of “if” and “willingness” of such hitherto big people “agreeing” to become ministry staff. This is because the state authorities, as the word "authority'' implies, have been big and their top positions possibly attract more prestige and envy than those of Cabinet ministers.
For such people to start reporting to an undersecretary may not be easy, to put it mildly.
But how did we get here? Twenty-five years ago, privatisation was all the rage. Most state enterprises were sold off to “get government out of business” and then regulatory authorities were set up. Before we knew it, there were as many authorities/agencies were as many as the parastatals that were sold off — about 150 — and they were dealing in billions, and trillions of shillings. And stealing half of the money.
A recent judicial commission of inquiry found that Ush4 trillion was stolen in as many (or as few) years from the Uganda National Roads Authority.
If you think that is blatant, consider the grotesqueness of the Civil Aviation Authority hiring a debt collector to get its money from the Ministry of Finance – successfully.
The new authorities were dabbling in the market and the managers were behaving like any corrupt businessman. People called the frenzied looting in the authorities a policy reversal because they were behaving like the discredited parastatals.
Now the "collapsed-merge-absorb" move is also being seen as another policy reversal only the words parastatal and mixed economy are no longer in currency.
The height of human resource obscenity was witnessed in the authorities that started paying board members monthly salaries plus other allowances, contrary to the tradition that board members are only paid a sitting allowance, for a maximum of four sittings in a year.
Now, the challenges of managing and supervising managers from such an obese and rotting environment when they get absorbed into ministries where the official pay is a fraction of what they were used to.
The head of a collapsed authority who has been earning $10,000 a month would have to accept $700 as a commissioner of a government department, about 1,400 per cent pay cut.
But salaries are not the biggest problem. Public officials survive on allowances for which claims are very creatively made. Inspection trips around the country are imagined, approved and paid for. Trips abroad are made but for a fraction of the days that are paid for and so on.
Now imagine a former authority boss who has been the one approving such creative claims, to start applying for them to a "mere" ministry undersecretary. To get any such allowances to supplement their salary s/he would have to ‘dance’ before the undersecretary to sign approval. Can such a person work effectively?
An authority boss has the discretion to pay for medical treatment of a member of staff’s sick mother abroad.
After being absorbed into the ministry, the former authority boss would have to ‘‘dance’’ for their own medical bills to be refunded.
These may not sound like core issues for the functioning of a government department, but then, the system is still so reliant on human resource that and once the human is discontented, their output will be affected.
Our offices are cluttered with computers that become obsolete before their capacity is utilised by up to 10 per cent. We are still a very basic society that relies on the human mind to feed the decision-making process. And now our ministries are going to be infused with a dose of disgruntled humans.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based writer and columnist. He writes on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]