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Sierra Leone’s Public Sector: ‘Don’t Reform it, Re-create it.’

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

20 February 2010

The monthly sale of Government Treasury Bonds in Sierra Leone is becoming a national bonanza that will soon come to haunt the nation, as the government tries to raise hundreds of Billions of Leones, to meet the costs of running the Public Sector.

This huge government borrowing is set to take the national debt to well over 20% of Gross Domestic Product by the end of 2010, slowly pushing the nation once again, towards the bottom of the world’s ‘Highly Indebted Poor Countries’ (HIPC) Classification.

With the annual HIPC Debt Relief currently running at Le14.8 Billion in 2010, questions must be raised as to the rationale underpinning government’s departmental spending and mounting debt burden, against the backdrop of declining government revenue.

The government’s budgetary current account deficit increased to -8.4 percent of GDP in 2008 from -3.5 percent in 2006. Estimate for 2009 suggest that this deficit had more than double to -18%, as government spending soared.

The Koroma government is committed to spend Le1.5 Trillion in 2010, although they are only expecting to raise Le1.4 Trillion from taxation and donor funds.

The government is hoping to raise Le 844.1 Billion (11% of GDP) from taxation and export revenue – assuming economic growth is maintained; and Le 567.5 Billion (7.8% of GDP) through Donor Grant-in-aid.

This leaves a massive Le100 Billion cash deficit that is being raised through borrowing. With the global economic downturn far from being over, the government’s revenue forecasts from mining and, customs and excise, cannot therefore be guaranteed. Hence, it is reasonable to forecast that government borrowing will far exceed Le100 Billion, by the end of 2010.

In the meantime, according to government’s figures, President Koroma is increasing the Public Sector wage bill from Le 400.2 Billion in 2009 to Le 453.3 Billion in 2010. A minimum increase of 20% in basic pay for civil servants, teachers, police, military, prison officers and fire force, has been promised. The government will also recruit an additional 2000 teachers and 1000 police officers by the end of 2010.

While this increase in the government’s wage bill may be good in tackling poverty amongst the ‘urban white and blue colour’ Public Sector workers, there are those in the private sector that are questioning the effects of increased government spending on business taxation, inflation, public sector borrowing and the national debt.

The answer to the country’s economic decline does not lie in the expansion of the public sector, whose productivity performance and value added contribution to the country’s GDP is highly questionable.

With the President’s admission of rampant corruption in the state sector, ordinary citizens are inclined to demand a massive shake up of the public sector.

It is against this background that the call for President Koroma to revisit the aim and objectives of the current public sector reform programme is being made.

Sierra Leone’s Public Sector was once the envy of much of Sub-Sahara Africa. Today, after many years of dysfunction, corruption, maladministration and tribal politicisation, the sector is now recognised for its unfitness for purpose, overstaffing, low productivity and inefficiencies, poor value for money, low staff morale, low pay, and low public expectations.

Attempts by previous governments to reform and restructure the sector had failed, mainly because of politicization and the deep rooted culture of corruption embedded within its management structures. Hence, our view is that any strategy aimed at reforming the public sector now, that stops short of a radical ‘root and branch’ change, will not succeed.

As the cost of running the sector continues to spiral out of control, so does the burden on the tax payer becomes unbearable. Donor funds that could be used in developing the productive capacity of the economy are instead being utilized in propping up inefficient ministries and departments. The Wealth of any nation lies in what it can produce.

With declining government revenue from exports and taxation, questions must be asked as to the sustainability of the sector in its present form. State House sources say that the President is frustratingly unhappy with the performance of ministers and heads of departments.

In July, 2009, President Koroma launched the current Public Sector Reform Programme, with financial and human resource support from the international community: the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), the European Commission (EC), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank.

In his address, the President admitting to decades of chronic mismanagement by successive governments, said: “Those of us who are involved with the management of the Public Service in Sierra Leone are often painfully aware of a once well functioning Civil Service that has degenerated from the highest level of efficiency to the dismal state we find ourselves today."

He also reminded that; “By action, inaction or omission, we have all presided over the decline of what used to be an efficient public service to a level where basic services are now only grudgingly provided, and in some cases, not provided at all.”

But in setting out his priorities for changing the sector, the President unfortunately missed a great opportunity to show strong leadership, based on the overwhelming popular support he got at the 2007 polls. He failed to use his political capital to call for the dismantling of the existing structures - making way for the creation of a new, smaller, leaner, efficient and responsive Public Sector that is fit for purpose.

“One of my first priorities has been, and will continue to be, the resuscitation of our Public Service” – said the President. Having admitted that the sector was ‘dead’, it was a very costly mistake to then propose to ‘resuscitate’ it – a decision that will have far reaching consequences for the public purse.
So, what is President Koroma hoping to achieve with his new Public Sector Reform Programme, other than trying to breathe life into the sector? President Koroma said:

“We consider the creation of a performance-oriented Public Service as central to Good Governance. We have to rationalize our workforce; to review the recruitment process; to build strong and functioning management structures and to attract and retain a competent workforce. We need to build a transparent and accountable public service with the highest standards of professionalism. We deserve a public service that has value for money and that values customers. This is what the new Public Sector Reform Programme is set to achieve.”

These are fine words, but are they being matched by realistic actions?

The Bi-annual Work Plan, which was jointly signed by the Secretary to the President, who is also chairman of the Public Sector Reform Steering Committee and Samuel Harbor, Deputy Country Director, UNDP, appears to be a million miles away from achieving the President’s goals.

Although the Plan ‘will focus on developing capacity and key competences within the central and local governments while enhancing cooperation with the private sector through public-private partnerships’, this $1.3 Million UNDP funded Civil Service Reform component of the Programme is hoping to enhance co-ordination and management of the Human Resource Management Office, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Public Service Commission.

The Civil Service Reform Programme is also aiming to rationalise staff pay and incentives, provide systems and tools to enhance the output of ministries, departments and agencies; modernize information, communication and technology platform for improved public service delivery; train 250 junior, middle and senior staff; and improve service delivery models.

There are serious inherent structural problems that are affecting productivity, efficiency and the effectiveness of the sector, which cannot be glossed or plastered over.

While this Programme may succeed in ‘plastering the cracks’ on the walls of the old and dilapidated Public Sector management structure, it certainly is not designed nor aimed at re-creating a smaller, leaner and highly efficient service – with a new, positive corporate and management culture.

Although it is not clear what elements of the Reform Programme are being funded by the British government, the Department for International Development (DFID) is providing $4.5 million to the government of Sierra Leone in support of the Reform Programme.

If the aim of the British government is to assist the government of Sierra Leone in creating a modern public sector that is fit for purpose, then this challenge must be met through down-sizing, merging of departments, significant reduction in the number of ministries, and the creation of smaller more manageable departments. This new structure will drive up efficiencies, minimize corruption and make the sector more accountable and transparent.

If the aim of President Koroma is to see a new, smaller, vibrant, lean, responsive and cost-effective Public Service in Sierra Leone – in his lifetime – then he needs to stop pretending that reforming or resuscitating the Sector is the answer. A radical decision must be taken to recreate a new service that is fit for the Twenty-first Century and beyond; otherwise these words shall remain meaningless:

“We consider the creation of a performance-oriented Public Service as central to Good Governance. We have to rationalize our workforce; to review the recruitment process; to build strong and functioning management structures and to attract and retain a competent workforce” – President Ernest Koroma.


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