It’s time to address size of public service

By Barack Muluka

When President Uhuru Kenyatta announced at a Jubilee retreat in Mt Kenya that he was taking a 20 per cent wage cut, the response was swift and predictable. His detractors, led by CORD leaders, said it was a cheap gimmick. A publicity stunt without enduring merits, they said. Undaunted, the President went on to sound an edict on public service wages. All heads of State corporations would take a 20 per cent pay cut, in the interest of an ailing national economy. The President charged with the mien of a wounded buffalo, “Take it or leave it. If you so wish, you can go to court,” he said.

However, even litigation will not make the Government relent, he said. For, it would be far better to release to you any awards directed by the courts than to continue paying obnoxious salaries. A number of questions arise. What prompted this decision and why the timing? What impact is a wage cut likely to have on the national economy? The high-powered meeting at Mt Kenya Safari Club was intended to assess the performance of the Jubilee Government, one year after it ascended to power. President Kenyatta is constitutionally expected to address the joint houses of Parliament in the next few weeks, on the state of the nation – hence the review and planning meeting.

But is President Kenyatta a frustrated leader? What kind of report is he going to give the country? Why could he not wait for the constitutional address to Parliament before reading the Riot Act? Does this suggest troubled times? Next to this, what truly is the state of Kenya’s economy? What kitty did the President inherit from his predecessor Mwai Kibaki? Could Kenyatta have found an empty kitty? Has he remained silent about this out of loyalty and deference to his predecessor?

And what is the impact of Kenya’s new foreign policy on the economy? Are frosty relations with traditional partners having impact on the economy? Is Kenya the victim of quiet economic wars? The answers to these questions could give useful pointers to what is happening in Government and what Kenyans should expect to inform the cost and standards of life in the coming months.

That the economy is sitting badly is not in doubt. The President has been quite clear on this. We could be grinding to a halt. An obnoxious wage bill at the top is an easy target both to identify and attempt to address, because of its obvious visibility. Kenya is spending about 74 per cent of public revenue on recurrent expenditure. Then there is public debt, possibly another 20 per cent. This leaves a paltry 6 per cent. What is the point in spending 96 per cent of revenue in this manner? What can you meaningfully do with the remaining 4 per cent? This is simply pathetic.

When President Moi left office in 2002, the public wage bill stood at just about 7 per cent. It grew rapidly under Mzee Kibaki over an eight-year period to hit the 30 per cent mark. It has shot up exponentially under President Kenyatta to the current stratosphere. This is in part because of a bloated Legislature and debilitating devolved government. Add to this the fact that we disguised and sent the former Provincial Administration into the counties. You end up with a monster of a government, standing on a mosquito’s legs.

Things would be bad enough with our size of government, even with normal salaries. Our case is, however, compounded by the fact that both in quantum terms and relative to our economy, we pay just about the highest salaries and benefits to the top brass anywhere in the world. President Kenyatta, for example, earns about $425,000 annually. President Obama of the US is paid $400,000 over the same period. Compare this to the fact that the US is a 14 trillion dollar economy while Kenya is only a 38 billion dollar economy. You begin seeing that the Kenyan economy cannot bear the public wage bill.

What of devolution? The US is devolved into 52 states on the 14 trillion dollar economy. Kenya has 47 devolved units on 38 billion dollars. Throw in indiscipline in the management and use of public finance in Kenya and you get to appreciate our predicament. President Kenyatta must address the size of the Public Service. Kenya’s devolved government is unsustainable. While devolution may be a good thing for us, don’t we need to make it affordable? Do we need a smaller, leaner and efficient outfit? Do we need to get rid of some State corporations?

– The writer is a publishing editor, special consultant and advisor on public relations and media relations