I found fear, scandal, high-handedness at UNRA - Kagina

Ms Allen Kagina, the Uganda National Roads Authority executive director. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

First anniversary. On May 1 last year, Ms Allen Kagina took office as executive director of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA). In the one year, she has turned everything upside down, including terminating contracts for all staff. She told Sunday Monitor’s Frederic Musisi that she found the once troubled body ripe for change, and much as a lot has changed through various reforms, the transformation is not complete.

From Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) where you are still credited for having caused a massive turnaround to now UNRA; how does it feel?
Let me start by making a clarification because this is something that is often said but misleading; there is no single person that could have turned URA around alone. Secondly, to attribute all that change, which is very significant and actually continuing, to an individual Allen Kagina is to unfairly not credit more people who were involved, but also put so much burden on the person of Kagina as if she has some kind of magic.

The transformation of URA was a collective effort of the ministry of Finance, the great board of directors, a top management team, the public and the support of the President, which was invaluable. A lot of things came together; my role was just a mobiliser, and this transformation is still continuing.
On May 1 [2015], I walked in here without any idea of what I was venturing into. The little knowledge I came with is what I had read in your paper/s: Katosi [scandal], publication of ongoing roads projects, and the long list of roads to be constructed that were read every year in the budgets. When I look back, I cannot believe it was the same institution.

What kind of environment did you find here?
Coming from a very different background, I found this a completely different place. I found a place that did not have regulations; a place that had processes that were very long and tiring; data retrieval and information access was very difficult; I found in the corridors fear, scandal, and high handedness. I found an environment that was so ripe for change. I also found something that is very valuable to this organisation: very high-skilled people, engineers with long experience and training.

Whereas on one hand there were things which did not work well, on another there were assets. But I still needed to first take a snapshot of the organisation. To understand it, I started by touring ongoing road projects, and then studied the different external and internal audits that had been conducted, and it was when it became clear that we needed a new organisational structure.

What was so hard to work with, or you just wanted to midwife a new system to work in your favour?
When we set out to do a new organisational structure, the board gave me what they had envisioned already to change UNRA’s structure that existed. For example, the legal department was a one man show, the corporate affairs which speaks to the public was a one man show, there was no investigations department, so if anything happened it had to be referred to either CIID or the IGG.

The HR [human resource] was a very small office I believe of three manning a workforce of slightly 1,000. There were people on the payroll who did not have appointment letters, there were people who were not being paid, and when I asked for the recruitment list and payroll, it seemed very ad hoc. There were people whose contracts had expired but continued working.
Procurement: it is unusual for the process to take two years. You had administrative reviews done here in confidentiality but the information would quickly be out there in the public. Corridors were full of contractors chasing their payment. Regional managers were situated and supervising work 300kms away from here in Kampala.

One year later, the belief out there is that things have changed a lot. What have you done so far?
When we did the restructuring, it was to address what was happening in a disoriented organisation. We introduced directorates, beefed up the numbers because we were understaffed – the body has a capacity of 1,740 but it was slightly above 1,000 back then. We are in the process of increasing this capacity, but in a phased manner to avoid overstretching the organisation. We also had to deal with our reputation; it was really bad back then and this was obvious to see.

Also, based on the way things stood when I came in, I sat with the board and discussed having an external audit which gave birth to the commission of inquiry, and for nearly six months as you saw [the commission] was digging through and turning things upside down. They compiled a report which I believe is with the President and [we] are waiting for the next course of action.

There was also terminating all staff at one time and embarking on a fresh recruitment. Did you think this concept could reconfigure the whole organisation?
The commission was looking at everything, but we could not wait for it to finish work. We said let us see how to begin new work methods so that the staff can fit in the new system, so we agreed with the board to restructure the workforce.
I believe we lost almost half of our former staff and some, of course, their contracts were not renewed so it had nothing to do with integrity or failing to pass interviews. The others, because we opened up these jobs to any member of the public, so those who failed the test left. We managed to get a good number from within and from the outside.

So what has changed from all this?
We now have a new culture, especially to ensure accountability. We are also in the process of reviewing our internal working process – start business process engineering.
With regards to our road network, we are still not there yet. The current network is slightly over 4,000[km] of the paved network and slightly more than 16,000[km] unpaved, but we would like in the next three years to have more 1,000km paved, coupled with reduction in unit costs of construction. That is why we have to expand the network, recruit our own land specialists and also now have a monitoring framework with our donors to account for their money. Donors give us a lot of money, about half of our Budget is donor-funded and most of it loans and very few grants.

There are murmurs everywhere on the termination of staff. How many were axed?
That number is about 50 per cent. Like I said, not all them left because of the restructuring; quite a huge chuck left because their contracts were not renewed. And then there are those who did not pass the interviews when we advertised the jobs.

How much did you pay in terminal benefits?
We paid terminal benefits. I cannot point to a specific figure, but I know we computed a certain figure equivalent of three months’ salary benefits, leave days and gratuity. It was a huge sum.

Do you think the organisation has regained public trust?
Yes. Maybe not fully because I think there is a section of the public who say ‘let us see how far they go with their reforms’, and that is a very reasonable position to take, especially if you have terminated 800 employees.
However, reading from the feedback in main stream and social media, I think the confidence is coming back.

From the reading of things, the same board which endorsed most of the reforms was party to the confusion that ensued here and everything happened under their watch. How do we reconcile the two scenarios?
Your reading is wrong. I found a really good board and I could not have reached anywhere without their support.
However, if you recall the board had been suspended after some disagreements with the appointing authority but then it was reinstated. This board had already embarked on a few things like the structure we implemented, so there was some good work going on.

One of the problems of the old UNRA was the political weight behind everything. There were poster boys/politicians behind every contractor who not only influenced how things run, but also meddled in daily affairs. How have you managed to stay afloat?
That was the scenario then, but [it] has now changed. People came here for two reasons: One, there are those who bid for jobs and results took even a year, I mean if they didn’t get feedback they would look for somebody big who can talk.
For others it was purely manipulation. Take the example of Katosi, how do you give a contract to a company that doesn’t exist? Interference is possible if you are not efficient or accountable to the public – It is bound to happen either political or otherwise.
On procurement, we have given ourselves a standard practice of four months, unless it is a very complicated one. The payment system, you don’t need to chase us, we will reach to you in the shortest time possible. And third, we have put up a call centre for anyone to call from outside with any inquiry.

In the recent past the poor quality of road works has been tagged to especially the small contractors, who are the local ones. How are you dealing with them while not locking them out of business?
We are doing two things: First, a performance assessment of all contractors – we are assessing their performance and work capacities. It is true we have small ones, medium ones and large. Most of our local companies fall in the category of small ones and when done with assessment we will want to introduce a component of road maintenance so that when a road is tendered it can be built by a large company and as the small company learns or undertakes maintenance.
We have completed the criteria of assessment and the next thing will be to categorise them.

There is also a concern of Chinese companies stampeding for construction works here at the command of their government financing the projects, and at times their final work leaves a lot to be desired…
First of all, most funding agencies will want you to use contractors of their own, though I somewhat find European funders very flexible. Arab funders will say use Arab contactors, so the issue is not peculiar to the Chinese. Two, you attract companies depending on your strength. If you have a weak UNRA, you will attract companies that suit you – that is why the restructuring had to start with us. True, there are weak companies which cannot only mobilise machines, funding and have to be compelled to redo work each time but these face termination. But above all, it all goes down to supervision.

While Uganda’s road network has been steadily improving, many people who travel abroad will agree government is doing little. Apart from the ongoing expansion of the Northern Bypass and the Jinja-Kakira or Kibuye-Entebbe roads, Uganda doesn’t have a reasonable dual carriage to pride in
One thing I have learnt in working in public institutions is not to expect results yesterday. To put up a road that will run for another 20 years – from securing funding, procurement – is something which takes time. The road network currently has been overtaken by the growth in the economic need. For example, the number of vehicles has grown, there is a lot of trade crisscrossing between our neighbours, and it’s true some roads are old – roads that were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s cannot serve 2016.

But also, what we are constructing, we are not maintaining it so it can have a longer life. But that’s current. But the future is we have a number of highways planned. The next express way should be Kampala-Jinja 77km, there is a flyover project, expressway from Kibuye, Busega, Mpigi, Southern Bypass – but that is the future. We are discussing with a number of stakeholders on how to move forward.

Are we talking of a near future, or 2030s?
All these projects will come on board at different times.

The Jinja Expressway, you said works were starting in March…
We faced some delays. The delays were caused by two things: One, the restructuring we are doing here – being the implementing agency some of the activities planned had to be delayed – but the main one has been the approval of the Resettlement Action Plan and the Environmental Impact Assessment plan.
But we may go to the market later in the year and construction [will] start early 2017.

But you also don’t maintain the roads you spend billions on to construct
The budgetary focus has been largely on increasing the network and especially on doing national highways and district to district roads. However, due to budgetary constraints we have not had money for maintenance but nearly enough to maintain what we have built. Not to maintain is wrong and is something we have to change.

Going forward, how far do you think the new reforms will go?
First, we are reviewing our corporate strategy so that it can give us visibility over the next five and 10 years. We are updating our investment plan: When government invests in the road, what are they benefiting in and what do they get out? That investment plan has not been updated in a long time.
We are currently training leadership in the balance scorecard methodology so that every change that is introduced really trickles down so that when a new ED [executive director] comes here and makes some changes it does not affect the entire organisation. We are also going through change management. But in a few years, all these reforms will be normal.

On the business model of roads, how does that exactly work?
It is crucial. You should not put money, especially where you won’t get a return. That is the basis on which donors give us money and is the basis for which government determines that we are going to do this road and not the other one.
Why should you not do the road – Mbale to Rwakaka and not Ssemuto Kapeka? The return is not on how cash comes back into UNRA, but how the economy in that area grows as a result that.

A while back Daily Monitor did an analysis on the scope of road constructions by regions in the country and found out that western Uganda seems more on track than the north which is a portal to South Sudan, currently one of our biggest trading partners
First of all, it is not correct that western has had more roads; the central region has more roads constructed. The focus of government is to do border to border, especially where productivity is growing. Much of the western region is a tourism area; unfortunately some of these areas are due for maintenance. When you talk about regional balance it is one of those dicey questions I have to answer after calculating the kilometres. But in summary, we are always looking at border to border, like Kapchorwa to Suam.

Talk of the Kapchorwa-Suam road, it is among the roads read in the Budget every year and mentioned by the President in the State-of-Nation addresses for the last five years…
[Laughs] They are now going to leave the Budget. Kapchorwa-Suam is a regional road; I believe being funded by ADB, also being constructed on the Kenyan side. The challenge we experience is having to go through a number of processes. But also, the challenge is that everyone wants their road constructed everywhere you go, and that alone is a challenge compared to the resources we have.
If it is a donor-funded project, you can even duplicate the procurement process because at every stage you reach you must get a no objection.

Any last word?
I would like to appreciate the support of Ugandans, the patience of the public: Ugandans are great people. But also, the recent very keen interest in our progress, I commend the feedback we get through.
I want to appeal for patience because it is not easy getting everyone a road. While UNRA has changed, the transformation is not complete. But we will get there.