Job losers in mergers offered new government slots

Ms Catherine Bitarakwate, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Public Service. She says the government intends to retain and absorb as many staff as possible form the merged entities. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

The Public Service ministry says those who will be affected in the merger process will be first priority in filling staffing gaps in other public institutions.

The government has frozen new staff recruitments across the central and local governments, pending the completion of the ongoing merger of its agencies and departments.

The moratorium applies to 23 ministries, four service commissions, 72 agencies and departments not affected by the merger and 148 local governments; 137 districts and 11 cities, including Kampala.

Officially christened Rationalisation of Government and Public Expenditure (RAPEX), the government expects the intended changes, whose decisions have been on-and-off, will save it up to Shs1 trillion annually.

Ms Catherine Bitarakwate, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, in a June 21 circular to all permanent secretaries, executive directors of parastatal bodies, secretaries of commissions, chief administrative officers, and town clerks, noted that the hiring freeze is intended to “retain and absorb as many staff as possible” from the merged entities.

“The Ministry of Public Service is aware that structures for government institutions are currently filled to an average of up to 68 percent, indicating the presence of vacant positions which can accommodate affected staff under the Rationalisation of Government and Public Expenditure,” the PS wrote.

She added: “It is important to note that the government does not intend to lose the experience, knowledge and expertise of the staff in the affected ministries and agencies.”

Ms Bitarakwate noted that the freeze, however, does not affect ongoing recruitment and that “filling critical vacant positions” outside the RAPEX “shall be managed on a case-by-case basis after consultations” with her ministry.

“Filling vacant positions in this period shall only be cleared to accommodate staff from the agencies affected by RAPEX.”

The circular came a day after Ms Bitarakwate had on June 20 written to 22 heads of parastatals and agencies directing them to “desist from hiring new staff” and only renew contracts due to expire until December 30, 2024 in consultation with her ministry and Attorney General’s office.

The directive applied to agencies that Parliament voted recently to maintain as semi-autonomous institutions and 16 others whose fate is yet to be determined.

Lawmakers in different votes since late February have retained seven parastatals, among them, big budget holder Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U), the Dairy Development Authority (DDA), Cotton Development Organisation (CDO), National Forestry Authority (NFA), Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) and National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADs).

Nineteen agencies and departments have been merged so far, including the Agriculture Chemicals Board, Uganda Trypanosomiasis Control Council, Uganda National Meteorological Authority, National Physical Planning Board, and the National Population Council.

ICT minister Dr Chris Baryomunsi, who is the government spokesperson, told this newspaper last week that Cabinet had rejected the retention of the seven parastatals and directed that the Repeal Bills taking care of the concerns of MP be tabled afresh before Parliament.

Unclear structure

As per Ms Bitarakwate’s letter, only 32 percent of government positions are not filled, which figure is contrary to the findings of the latest Auditor General’s (AG) report of the financial year ending June 2023.

The report released last December and submitted to Parliament in January detailed that 60,847 out of 133,670 approved positions in 75 MDAs and 167 local governments have been vacant for more than two years.

The Local Government record shows that Uganda has 135 districts and 11 cities, adding to 146. We were unable to establish the range of local governments captured by the auditors.

Outgoing AG John Muwanga noted that the staffing shortage had adverse impact on service delivery as it “leads to reduced efficiency … increased workload for existing staff [and] delivery of quality services”.

The report detailed that it is in the health and education sectors that the staffing shortfalls have been most felt. Other entities crippled by staff shortfalls include Office of the President, and the ICT Ministry.

“The existing human resource management practices/measures are not sufficient to facilitate the delivery of quality healthcare services by health professionals in specialised, national and regional referral public health facilities in Uganda,” the auditors noted.

Mr Phillip Asavia, the Public Service ministry spokesperson, told this newspaper last evening that they, together with the AG, undertook fresh [re]validation of all government employees.

A final report of the validation which ended last week is pending.

“Yes, the AG undertook validation, but many employees were not captured for one reason or another. Some were sick; so, they did not turn up for the validation exercise, others had missing documents, and some were new on the job,” Mr Asavia said.

He added: “From what the AG submitted, many (employees) were removed from the payroll and yet they are government employees. So the ministry [of public Service] working with the AG had to undertake another exercise … It is the report of that exercise that will show us the number of employees.”

However, the AG reports over the last 10 years have put the number of vacant positions both in central and local governments at about 60,000 on the back of hiring freeze advice by Finance ministry, citing a bloated wage bill.

Officials are investigating reports of a clog in the manpower management in government due to an increasing number of employees due for retirement filing to adjust their birth dates to reduce their ages.

Rationale for merger

The plan to merge government agencies was first mulled in 2018. Consequently, the Ministry of Public Service recommended to Cabinet that out of the 157 agencies reviewed, 80 should be retained as semi-autonomous agencies, 33 agencies should have their mandate and functions mainstreamed to their parent ministries and 35 agencies be consolidated or merged into 19 entities.

Cabinet in 2022 gave the nod, making the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), which was folded back into the Energy ministry, the guinea pig.

Several stakeholders, including Parliament, raised the red flag about the merger, but a parliamentary ad hoc committee in its report issued in February 2022, gave the green light to the merger proposal.

The reason? Duplicated mandates, functional ambiguities depicting mix-up of policy, regulation and implementation, unharmonised legal frameworks within which some of the agencies operate, and bloated structures of some agencies that are not aligned to their mandates.

There are 157 public agencies and 22 ministries in addition to the offices of the President and that of the prime minister.