Caught Between Two Stools


The 2012 PRB Report

After obtaining Cabinet’s assent, the report of the Pay Research Bureau (PRB) was made public on 9th October 2012. This report is coming 4 years after its predecessor of 2008. The PRB has the twin objectives of making recommendations on salary and conditions of service in the public sector and improving the efficiency of the public service.

In its present report, the PRB has recommended pay increases between 6.5% and 32% for different grades in the public sector, working out to an average increase of 22% for all grades taken together compared with the previous package of 2008. It involves an additional public expenditure of Rs 4.6 billion per annum which will take effect as from January next year. The government has decided that the new package will be paid in toto and not be staggered in partial tranches as it was done some time in the past. There may be a minus or plus above this figure in the ensuing exercise called ‘Errors and Omissions’ requiring further adjustments to correct anomalies contained in the report but it is not expected that that would scale up the numbers significantly.

One would have thought that such a scale of increase of the public sector wage bill in the current circumstances in an economy not performing at its best, would have been hailed with satisfaction. That is not actually the case. A deep frustration appears to have hit the majority among the public servants who find no real cause for celebration. Indeed, there has been a hue and cry across the trade unions of the public sector to the point that some have gone as far as to ask that the incumbent director of the PRB may need to be pensioned off.

Here is an exercise that public servants have been waiting for with bated breath since at least the last year and a half. All it appears to have done is to sink in a sense of frustration across the board. Various reasons have been given out for the dissatisfaction. It is claimed that the biggest beneficiaries of the increase in the government’s wage bill are the top civil servants and heads of public sector enterprises whereas the majority of public sector employees have benefited from sheer marginal increases. On the one hand, the majority of the employees see the adjustment made in their respect to be grossly inadequate, given the cost of living. On the other, many have expressed the view that, in absolute terms, the income gap has widened enormously between those at the lower levels and the few at the top.

The debate appears to have centred upon the lower relative amount of compensation for the majority of public servants. Others have drawn attention to the derisory increases in their allowances. Not much has been heard in terms of protest over the review of conditions of service. Overall, for the majority of employees in the public sector, the report has evoked a feeling of its rejection. However, for all practical purposes, the public sector unions can try to change things once the ‘Errors and Omissions’ aspect will come to be thrashed out later, not reject the report itself.

This sense of unfulfilment does not augur well. It means that despite the significant effort government will be making to pay up the higher wage bill, the motivation factor will still be absent as regards those who feel frustrated. Yet, it was one of the objectives when the PRB was first established that this institution should work towards retaining in the public sector a well performing cadre of public servants.

Given the conundrums we have been seeing of late in the country’s economic and social progression, it cannot be said that our Civil Service has actually proved its efficiency. Many decisions have been hanging in mid-air or failed to be properly concluded; the Director of Audit has constantly been reminding us of those prevailing shortcomings. He has in particular drawn attention, in the past series of his reports, to the significant waste occasioned successively in public expenditures. That does not speak highly in favour of a performing public sector, bent on achieving focussed objectives to advance the country’s economic and social horizon beyond the obvious pedestrian level of its operation.

The previous PRB report had already given due consideration to the need to retain skills in the public sector by hiking up wages at the highest level of the public sector hierarchy. A specific percentage increase in those hiked-up pay scales by the new PRB is no guarantee that delivery will automatically improve at that level. Increase in pay alone does not generate the coordinated high-aspiring public leadership the country needs at that level. It requires a deep sense of commitment by fitting round pegs in round holes but you can never do such a fit between square pegs and round holes at the top of the hierarchy.

This kind of perspective having a broad, intelligent and profound overview of what the public service should evolve into and how equipped it should be structurally for the purpose is probably beyond the ken of the PRB. The PRB is perhaps only concerned with Pay, not strategic policy performance by rounding up our resources much more efficiently, given the serious challenges confronting various compartments of public life. If the Establishment is taken for granted, there is not much one can do to improve performance in terms of prioritizing and making more efficient (or making redundant, as the case may be) the given setup of human resource allocation.

We are therefore left with two principal concerns at the end of the day: a disgruntlement in general about the PRB’s recommendations, particularly at the lower levels of the hierarchy and the want of a clear vision of what and with which means the public service could drive up from its current relatively under-performing mould. One would have wished that, with so much of additional spending of taxpayer money as the PRB entails, a real sense of directional ‘ownership’ of the country’s affairs would have been instilled for the occasion into the workforce of the public sector. If some categories of public servants are frustrated with what they get, taxpayers are no less concerned about value-for-money from their current and forthcoming contributions to the Budget. The springs for regenerating a new spurt of the economy should not be allowed to be burdened too much.

* Published in print edition on 12 October 2012

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