Twenty-eight district commissioners (DCs), seven chief executive officers (CEOs) of cities, municipalities and town councils, 10 principal secretaries and all 15 heads of clusters were interdicted last week and their jobs are on a knife-edge. Their crime: as controlling officers, they failed to submit expenditure reports on Covid-19 funds to relevant authorities. Verdict: they must wait at home while investigations are underway.
Well, in the public service interdiction for suspected misconduct is perfectly in order. Ignorance of rules and procedures is no defence. As controlling officers, the DCs, CEOs of councils, PSes and heads of clusters (most of whom are also PSes) are all senior public officers who are supposed to be conversant with the public finance management system as well as all other government accountability systems. Public money spent leaves a paper trail. It is that trail or record that President Lazarus Chakwera is rightly demanding for the part the money controlling officers got from the K6.2 billion Covid funds.
But what I strongly feel is perfectly out of order is why all 28 DCs got it wrong? Why all CEOs for councils failed the test? Why all 10 PSes missed the boat? Why all the 15 heads of clusters did not get it right? How come all these officers disregarded the systems? Or how come all of them failed to follow the systems?
In a class when all students fail an exercise or exam, the culprit is the teacher. He or she has a clear mandate: to deliver the contents of a curriculum to the students in a manner that they will understand and be able to correctly answer questions on the same. So when the whole class fails, you don’t solve the problem by ‘failing’ all the students. You look beyond the student. You look at the system. How was the teaching executed? Was the curriculum at the appropriate level for the students to be able to internalize issues? Was the teacher fully supported to do a good job? In other words, poor performance of the whole class is a reflection of a dysfunctional system. When you fall down in a race you look for the stump that made you trip. Interdicting DCs and council CEOs, PSes and mere heads of clusters is treating symptoms. Chatsitsa dzaye nchiyani? Deal with that thing. Fix systems. Those appointed in acting positions replacing interdicted DCs and PSes are no better qualified to tame the tide.
The failure by the DCs, council CEOs, PSes, heads of clusters to submit reports for the K6.2 billion is an indication that there is a systemic failure and rot somewhere which urgently needs to be sorted out. What needs to be done is to follow the root cause of the rot. Where does the rot start? The rot cannot start from the DCs and go higher up but vice versa. Last time I was in a management class, I was taught strategies are best enforced from above and by those with full oversight of the whole institution. In our case it is not DCs or PSes. DCs for sure are small sacrificial lambs of a dysfunctional system. They report to the PS who in turn reports to another office. If I were the President I would be embarrassed and angry that some officers I put in strategic positions are sleeping on their jobs.
Were the DCs, PSes, council CEOs and heads of clusters given clear expenditure plans for the money? If so, by who? What were the plans? If not, why should anyone expect the controlling officers to have performed wonders when there were no clearly defined TORs for the money? Was the money for social cash transfer? Was it for buying preventive personal equipments (PPPEs)? Or was it for civic education?
Now the K6.2 billion is gone (down the drain) and 35 senior officers in one ministry alone are at home and 10 PSes and 15 heads of clusters are interdicted. But are the new officers appointed in an acting capacity not just new wine in old bottles? Why should anyone expect them to perform wonders when the rotten and dysfunctional system has not been fixed? Especially that the new officers have just been given a more daunting task of overseeing expenditure of K17 billion. One can only hope and pray the money was disbursed with clear expenditure plans. Some disturbing reports I am getting—and I have no reason to discount them—are that the K17 billion largesse was issued as a blank cheque. Meaning the new officers who have taken over will determine what to spend the money on. If such is the case, the money will go—if it has not already gone—the same way the K6.2 billion was spent: more on allowances and logistics and little on procurements.
That is why we always need a strong opposition in and outside Parliament; to provide the necessary checks and balances to government. Unfortunately, our opposition—divided as it is—is at its weakest ebb and cannot speak with one voice. Cry my beloved Malawi.