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Mad dash for degrees swells public wage bill to Sh700b

The 66th University of Nairobi graduation ceremony at the main campus on December 17, 2021. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Over the last decade, the amount of money the government paid to its employees grew substantially.

The rise in the country’s wage bill, however, did not correspond with an increase in the number of employees.

Experts note that the fast-paced growth in the wage bill has been due to the practice of promoting civil servants once they got higher qualifications.

This has for years seen civil servants pursue higher education, which propels them into higher job grades and, in turn, better perks on graduation.

This is such that while the number of civil servants increased 34 per cent between 2010 and 2020, the public wage bill grew by nearly 200 per cent over the period.

In 2010, Kenya had 653,500 government employees, which went up to 884,000 in 2020, according to data by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).

In comparison, the government paid civil servants a total of Sh243.83 billion in 2010, but this increased 184.66 per cent to Sh694 billion in 2020.

Experts note that while other factors have contributed to the increase in salaries, the accumulation of educational qualifications among civil servants has been key.

The government plans to bring the number of civil servants down as it seeks to achieve its long-held desire of taming the public wage bill.

This is also on the nudging of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been pushing the government to institute reforms across different agencies, a move that is expected to claim some jobs.

“One of the main attractions for people joining the civil service is the opportunity for training. It is a major source of attraction because you are building human capital. When it comes to knowledge management, we need quite a bit of that, especially the technical component,” said Ken Gichinga, the chief economist at Mentoria Economics.

He noted that with more State employees moving to the next pay grade, this has over the years complicated Kenya’s finances.

“The challenge, however, comes with the rise in the wage bill. This is at a time when the country’s fiscal position is very tight. For every Sh100 of tax revenue collected, Sh65 goes towards servicing debt, and so you have Sh35 to cater for everything else. That pressure makes it impossible for people to get what they could have been getting out there, and it creates tension,” said Mr Gichinga.

The government has in the past employed such tactics as freezing hiring by its entities to tame the ever-rising wage bill.

In 2017, the Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua issued the moratorium that was aimed at taming the wage bill and also getting more funds into development projects.

This was, however, lifted on February 7 this year, when Mr Kinyua in circular informed Cabinet Secretaries, Principal Secretaries and chief executives of State-owned entities that they can go ahead and hire without having to seek the go-ahead from the Office of the President.

“The government is trying to contain the wage bill but also trying to manage the careers of civil servants who have put in quite a bit of resources in educating themselves,” he said.

“It is a tough balancing act, and I do not think we have gotten it right. Our debt position has affected these areas because of unavailability of money to sustain the wage bill.” Kinyua noted that upskilling and continuous training for public sector employees is unavoidable as there are emerging issues and trends daily across different disciplines.

“We have to keep up with global standards and new trends… such issues as fighting corruption, a big problem in Kenya, emerging issues such as cryptocurrencies, among others, require that we continue to upskill our civil services,” said Mentoria’s Gichinga.

"The advantage that Kenya has over other countries in the region is the human resource. We do not have the oil and minerals. It, however, needs prudence and balance and it needs to continue, not just for paper-pushing but for upskilling the human resource.”

The government has in recent years stopped the automatic promotion and salary increment based on acquiring an additional degree or other qualifications.

The Public Service Commission (PSC), has in the past explained that the decision was prompted by a huge number of civil servants enrolling in higher institutions of learning and demanding promotions thereafter, without showing essential performance indicators.

Goretti Kimani, a human resource consultant, noted that civil servants seeking promotions and salary increments through additional qualifications are a good thing.

“An employer wants an educated person whether government or private sector. Even when you hear that there is too much theory, and the education system may no longer offer experiential learning, I am in human resource, and I can tell you that we want educated people,” said Ms Kimani.

“People must go to school, they must be educated and must present the credentials that prove that they went to school... they have a desire to grow their careers and be paid accordingly.”

In saying that civil servants would not be promoted automatically, PSC explained that some of them obtained degrees that were not in line with their professions and did it purely for the sake of getting a promotion.

Kimani agreed that an employee should not automatically be moved to the next job grade for merely showing up with a new qualification.

“Nobody will ignore an educated person. But are you educated academically and practically? Are you ready to take on more roles or do you want us to give you more money just because you have brought a master’s degree?” she posed.

Kimani noted that this kind of promotion does not necessarily mean more responsibilities or the employer getting more value.

“Before, you automatically got a letter that you had been promoted but did not understand the new role, resulting in lack of performance in some instances,” she said.

Among the government employees who pursued higher education as they sought better perks and high job groups included teachers.

They would labour over the school holidays to get bachelor’s degrees to move up the ranks. This was, however, stopped in 2017.

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