Indeed, in corruption literature, a clogged system functions best with “oiling” to the extent that any priestly behaviour yields inefficiency
By Dr. Mike Ibrahim Okumu
Liberalisation polices in early 1990’s came with government not only getting out of the market and production spaces, but also with a leaner public service workforce.
With post liberation, whenever the Government sought to fix a public service problem, the solution lay in setting up an agency or authority. The thinking at the time was that line ministries were inefficient and setting up semi-autonomous agencies would be sufficient to ensure improvement in service delivery.
Consequently we had a plethora of agencies coming on board for example Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), National Planning Authority (NPA), Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) all these under Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic development (MoFPED) which still to-date has a planning, revenue and investment departments. Other agencies are Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), Electricity Regulatory Authority under Ministry of Works, Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB), Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and more.
Today, the debate is around re-structuring authorities to the extent of taking back some to line ministries with the rationale of streamlining and minimising the cost of service delivery. The key question is: what framework was put in place for the authorities to flourish? While agencies are significantly well facilitated at least in terms of staff salaries compared to main stream public servants in an effort to induce motivation; the issue of contention is that were they any better in dealing with the engrained sharking behaviour of civil servants? Are the agencies immune to corruption which may be reflected in abuse of office? Is there a possibility of a case by case assessment of each agency? Shall we have the desired rationalization in government spending?
One of the agencies to be taken back home is UNRA on grounds that it invested a great deal in cleaning up its acts in terms of minimising corruption; it has delivered few tarmacked roads. This is a typical tragedy of a bureaucratic system! In essence it does not pay off to operate priestly. Rather, under such circumstances, it pays off to behave just like others. Indeed, in corruption literature, a clogged system functions best with “oiling” to the extent that any priestly behaviour yields inefficiency.
Furthermore, now that the agencies were set up to evade the inefficiencies that characterised their mother ministries, how sure are we that by incorporating the agencies back as departments would eliminate the inefficiencies that we sought to abate? What has changed in the mother ministries that for instance UNRA would work best in the Ministry of Works?
My considered view is that we need a case by case evaluation of each authority. Especially where issues of duplication arise. For example what is the rationale of having the planning arm of government in both NPA and MoFPED? If indeed, MoFPED cannot let go of planning, then NPA should be merged with MoFPED! Otherwise, inherently there is resource wastage, especially given that ambiguities in law could be protecting both entities in the planning component of the nation. If not, the law ought to be amended to the extent that planning for the nation is NPA’s deliverable. Furthermore, NPA’s capacity should be strengthened to enable
it undertake evidenced based planning besides engaging in timely monitoring and evaluation. Such innovations in my view could be areas of cutting back public resource wastage while not affecting the quality and quantity services.
Besides, what is it that has failed in each agency? What kind of human capital do we have in these agencies? Is the recruitment process giving us the right persons in these jobs? Or are we expecting lawyers to do the work of engineers? Worse still are we having low end workforce by virtue of connections or nepotism, running critical positions in agencies? The effect of which is the poor performance service delivery we see now. Nonetheless, merely closing an agency might not solve the problem as ministries might not be immune to a compromised recruitment framework that is if it exists retrospectively. In that regard, does the solution lie in closing down an agency or streamlining recruitment mechanisms to minimize workforce incompetence?
Moreover, what penalty mechanism do we have for Ministers/ Permanent Secretaries (Technical heads of Ministries) that have failed in their respective ministries and agencies? We have witnessed ministers or permanent secretaries failing in one docket and as opposed to being dropped perpetually, they have been instead moved to manage other dockets. How then do we expect agencies to perform as they report to the non performing ministries?
Other than URA, do we have targets for each of the other agencies? If targets indeed existed, what penalty mechanisms are in place to reprimand inability to achieve the targets? Ordinarily the relevance of an agency should have been tagged on its contribution to: 1) national resource basket; 2) economic growth; 3) employment creation; 4) foreign exchange earnings; and socio-economic transformation among others. Having defined the targets, then we would be able to answer the question: what is the relevance of for instance URSB and UWA to Uganda’s economy? Can their mandate(s) be effectively delivered under the current governance structure or should they be absorbed as a department(s) within a respective ministry?
Furthermore, targets ought to be complimented with timely and predictable release of funds. Otherwise, it is illogical to expect an agency to deliver on its mandate and targets without adequate and timely release of neither funds nor exerting a certain degree of independency to deliver together with the carrot and stick mode of appraisal exerted.
While minimising duplication of public service delivery is important to ensure smoothness in service delivery and value for money, we must be cognizant of the fact that some services need highly specialised skills and facilitation to be housed within a ministry department. In this regard, entities in agriculture and health research could be spared being bogged down by civil service bureaucracy and unpalatable work culture.
In addition, efforts ought to be put in place to ensure that redundancies are minimised by ensuring that competitive human capital is absorbed within ministries without compromising their motivation to work.
If indeed streamlining of government agencies is aimed at rationalizing government spending, quicker returns could be attained when we look into the cost of public administration. For example, for each district we have a woman member of parliament, a municipality member of parliament and members of parliament from constituencies within the district. That aside we have members of parliament for special groups such as the disabled, workers, youth, army and ex-official. The effect of which has seen the size of parliament balloon from 92 members in 1962 to over 400 in 2018! This figure is likely to increase further as the quest for municipalities and districts increases. However, is this where we want to be as a nation? Does such a humongous parliament have enough time for each individual to debate on the floor? Would parliamentary quality of debate and output improve?
Another cost saving measure could be attained by rationalizing the existing ministries. For example, do we need ministers in charge of Karamoja and Luwero affairs among others? If these are areas of affirmative action, can’t they be absorbed in ministries responsible for building household socio-economic production capacities? Do we need a minister in charge of science and technology, this used to be a Government department, what warranted it being turned into a ministry yet you have science ministries like ministries of: Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries; ICT, Health and Trade and Industry?
Finally, while the rationalisation of each agency is welcome, this ought to be on a case by case basis. More fundamentally, emphasis should on an agency’s contribution to Uganda’s: 1) national resource basket; 2) economic growth; 3) employment creation; 4) foreign exchange earnings; and socio-economic transformation among others.
Writer is a senior lecturer at the School of Economics, Makerere University