For only 24 ministries, Malawi has a staggering 65 principal secretaries—an arrangement costing taxpayers over K400 million (about $1.1 million) in potential annual savings, Nation on Sunday has established.
This money could pay salaries of more than 1 100 lowest paid civil servants for a year at the reviewed monthly salary of about K29 000 (about $82), which is a 61 percent jump from K18 000 (about $51) after a pay hike deal reached on Thursday.
Critics have since said the bloated number of principal secretaries (PSs) is one of the public service inefficiencies denying civil servants better pay, draining public resources and hitting service delivery hard.
Nation on Sunday has also learnt that political considerations have seen the system creating “important departments that deserve to be headed by a PS” and establishment of what they now call PS II at the expense of the taxpayer and lower level civil servants.
In most cases, PS II positions are held by those who have fallen out of grace with the reigning political powers, but who must still be kept due to contractual obligations, according to a high ranking civil servant who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Others are still called directors in various jurisdictions, but get benefits of a PS because they are essentially such.
The cost of a PS
Our research shows that each of the 65 PSs currently gets a salary of K490 000 (about $1 400) a month plus 500 litres of fuel worth K350 000 (about $1 005) to run their two official vehicles.
These two items alone give a PS K840 000 (about $2 400) a month, which, for all the 65 officers, translates to K55 million (about $158 000) a month and K660 million (about $1.9m) a year.
If there were 24 PSs corresponding with the number of ministries, the cost would be K20 million (about $57 142) a month or K240 million (about $66 000) a year. This would result in an annual saving of K420 million (about $1.2m).
Meanwhile, because political reasoning assumes the need to satisfy some people for political survival, the country has seen post-Kamuzu Banda presidents creating full ministries from what were initially simple departments in other ministries.
One of Malawi’s successful Secretaries to the President and Cabinet (SPC) or Chief Secretary to Government as they are called today, Dr Justin Malewezi, has raised an alarm, calling for an Executive decision “for economic considerations.”
According to Malewezi, an economy the size of Malawi would do well “if the Executive considered having ministries we can afford.”
“The issue of ministries should be looked at carefully by the Executive. Where need be, it would be important to strengthen a department within a ministry rather than creating many ministries,” he said.
“It’s something to consider in terms of efficiency and affordability. The problem is that we are sort of shifting from one end to the other and all decisions rest in the Executive.
“Sometimes it would be important to put checks by either a commission or Parliament,” argued Malewezi, a former vice-president in the Bakili Muluzi administration.
Poor wages for civil servants
All this comes hot on the heels of the just ended strike in the civil service where employees were demanding a 67 percent pay hike which, Finance Minister Dr Ken Lipenga said government could not afford.
Government gave in on Thursday after agreeing to a 61 percent salary hike for the lowest paid employees and five percent for those at the top of the pay structure.
President of the Civil Servants Trade Union (CSTU) Eliah Kamphinda Banda argues that low cadre civil servants are suffering from the rising cost of living following the 2012 devaluation of the kwacha and resultant inflation now at 36 percent.
Public relations officer for the Department of Human Resource Management, Rudo Kayira, confirmed in an e-mailed response to a questionnaire on Wednesday that the lowest cadre, which is Grade R, used to get as little as K18 000 (about $51) a month before the 61 percent increase.
“The lowest cadre in the civil service is at Grade R, which is an industrial class post and these get K216 000 (about $617) per annum as gross [which translates to K18 000/month]. Those at Grade M [which is the entry point for those with MSCE] get K265 164 (about $757) per annum as gross [which translates to K22 097/month],” said Kayira.
As to why the country has 65 PSs manning 24 ministries, Kayira justified the situation, saying it is “because we have all those mandates.”
“PSs are controlling officers of various mandates. Although the common understanding is that a PS heads a ministry, there are other mandates which do not necessarily fall under a particular ministry. There are also some departments such as DHRMD [Department of Human Resources Management and Development], which is not exactly a ministry, but whose mandate is such that it requires its own principal secretary,” she said.
This was echoed by Principal Secretary responsible for administration in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) Clement Chinthu Phiri who said there are departments “which are important and so big that they deserve a PS at the helm.”
“It’s not like only ministries require PSs as controlling officers. Some departments are quite big,” he said.
He gave an example of Disaster Management, HIV and Aids, DHRMD and Statutory Corporations— which are departments in OPC—as some that deserve a PS.
A lot of duplication
But this does not make enough sense to Kamphinda Banda who sees “a lot of duplication.”
“I will give you an example of the Ministry of Labour where we have two PSs, then you have deputy secretary, director of finance and director of administration.”
“In public service, deputy secretary is already in-charge of administration, why do you need director of administration, let alone two PSs?” he queried.
Put to him a suggestion to retrench some support staff such as drivers, secretaries and guards to enable the civil service to increase perks, Kamphinda suggests “retrenching at the top would do more good than a guard.”
A public sector specialist at Chancellor College, Dr Richard Tambulasi, said in an interview on Friday the bloated number of PSs is a drain on public resources.
“Some of these don’t even have well defined division of labour, which creates problems in terms of who does what and it has heavy economic implications with a lot of money spent on a few people,” he said.
Tambulasi suggested that some of that money “could be put to better use such as building school blocks where pupils are learning under tree shades.”
He also warned against the politicisation of the position of PS over the years, saying it has robbed the civil service of skills and expertise.
“Because of politics, some PSs have been moved to ministries where technically they can’t help anything because they are in a wrong place,” he said.
The current system has seen some ministries having as many as three PSs such as in education. Other ministries have two.