Of COVID-19 allowances and the civil service

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Men wear protective masks as they walk down a deserted street on the first day of the 21-day nationwide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

A WEEK ago, the social media was on fire, following the disclosure of a letter from Finance permanent secretary George Guvamatanga calling for line ministries and other agencies to desist from making unauthorised travel and subsistence allowance claims at a time the nation is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

The public fury was understandable, but, however, misplaced and if not an indictment on how the Finance ministry and the Public Service Commission have handled the welfare of the frontline staff who have been going to work during the lockdown period, which started on March 30, before the extensions on April 19 and later on May 1, effectively up to May 17.

Whatever happens from here, there is no doubt that the issue of civil servants claiming allowances will continue to dog the public debate.

However, contrary to what has been penned across the media, public officials, that is junior and middle-ranking civil servants, who are the frontline staff, do not constitute “bigwigs”, which has become a term commonly used to show disdain for powerful figures especially in the political circles and the echelons of bureaucracy.

These are ordinary men and women, who have to bear the brunt of regular underpayment of wages.

Emotions aside, that these people would then go on to claim travel and subsistence allowances, which is subject to the approved rates by Treasury does not make their acts inhumane, or immoral especially in light of the increasing vulnerability of the local population and returnees from South Africa, Botswana and even Mozambique.

The role of government is to cater for all its people during these COVID-19 times, without of course abrogating its responsibility to pay dues to civil servants who run the machinery of government.

The public scorn may have been misdirected, which requires people to understand how government functions.

World over, a bureaucracy is run on instructions which are provided through tangible instructions and regular circulars. Travel and subsistence allowances are, therefore, based on a number of guiding considerations such as the inflationary environment and general macro-economic indicators which affect civil servants like anyone else.

Statutory Instrument 1 of 2000 (Public Service Regulations of 2000), as amended is instructive on the general conditions of service for civil servants. Section 21(1)(a) under Part V on allowances obliges the State to meet expenses for official purposes which include travel on duty. Section 22 on official travel confers the privilege on members authorised by the ministry head to claim approved rates set by the commission (Public Service) in concurrence with the Minister of Finance.

While the government’s resource purse has definitely been affected by COVID-19 which has heavily reduced the tax base, it is, however, worrying that the authorities did not provide regulations, or a particular statutory instrument which addresses the pertinent subject of allowances during COVID-19.

Had this been done, any actions inconsistent with expectations would have been dealt with in accordance with the appropriate remedies. It is telling that a bureaucracy which runs on instructions did not consider the urgency to put instructions and relevant advice regarding remuneration arising from official local travel, overtime allowances in a generally risky environment.

Added to SI 1 of 2000 is circular 11 of 2019 (dated October 17 2019) by the Public Service Commission on allowances. Circular 11 of 2019 reviewed the subsistence allowances to be paid for accommodation and meals, that is breakfast, lunch, dinner and so on. Given the changes which had occurred in the Zimbabwean economy especially following the exchange rate liberalisation which rendered wages useless, circular 11, therefore, cancelled and replaced circular 5 of 2019.

The responsibility, therefore, of any payment rests with the permanent secretary who primarily delegates the responsibility of monitoring finances to the finance and administration director and perhaps, the human resources director, whose role is pertinent regarding the welfare of workers especially during the times of COVID-19.

Contrary to the commonly held perceptions, the claiming of allowances could not have been a bonanza of sorts where people would willy-nilly make irregular, falsified claims or even unnecessary trips to cash in on COVID-19 allowances.

If that happened, matters of that nature are criminal and of course subject to the relevant disciplinary processes. However such ordinary claims should not be construed to be emanating from bigwigs.

Unfortunately, while the Ministry of Finance received plaudits for “reining in” “errant” ministries, the irony was apparent given the role the ministry and the Public Service Commission played in clearly articulating matters of remuneration during COVID-19.

It is instructive that before the lockdown was announced on March 30, public servants had already been directed to work on a rotational basis for two weeks, with heads of ministries, ordinarily called permanent secretaries in line ministries having the responsibility to outline the needed essential services staff of course working hand-in-glove with the human resources department.

However, nothing was said about a risk allowance considering that workers were attending duty without protective equipment. Here I am talking about medical officers, police officers on patrol, at roadblocks and even social workers, among others.

While the threat from COVID-19 is of an epidemiological nature, its response in government is cross-cutting line ministries. Social workers, for instance, are some of the primary contact points with returnees, some coming from COVID-19 hotspots regionally and internationally.

Why would these ordinary men and women not be accorded the extra dollars to augment their poverty salaries?

Not that allowances are an entitlement, but they are, however, key in motivating workers in times of need.

Government has a role to ensure that it enhances service delivery all the time, including during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ministry of Finance and even the Public Service Commission, should rather look at themselves in the eye for not giving the direction to be taken, which opened up room for ministries to determine budgetary allocations for travel and subsistence allowances.

It is key for the benefit of the public to highlight that government is currently operating on programme-based budgeting, to control expenditure across line ministries. Regarding COVID-19, ministries are required to direct resources and savings to the procurement of protective gear and other related accessories. Payments for allowances, were no doubt coming from such savings, which primarily sought to ensure that public health and safety are upheld.

While the dust appears to be settling now, there is, however, no doubt that the Treasury instruction appeared to have caused even more disharmony among its members. For instance government continues to pay its huge work force full salaries even for those who have been locked down at home. The net effect, therefore, of the announced measures is that it equates those who are toiling during COVID-19 and of course those who are at home. In denying workers what is due to them, Zimbabwe risks being unable to solve a serious health problem which has wrought havoc globally.

Since the lockdown measures have effectively cut foreign travel expenditure to minimum levels, there was no harm in having a tight system to pay those who attended duty. The direction set by Treasury has the effect of demoralising frontline workers, most whom survive from hand-to-mouth in the execution of duties and do not have the privilege of attending foreign workshops which the bigwigs rely on. But ordinary workers can never be bigwigs.

Zimbabwe should, therefore, look at the implications of this disharmony in terms of service delivery. There are allegations of enforcement officers receiving bribes from the public for instance. That is surely criminal. But of course, the lack of clear-cut policy on renumeration aids such corrupt tendencies. This is the problem.

 Ken Wislow is a lawyer, avid reader and former civil servant. He writes in his personal capacity.