Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Rationalise and harmonise before it is too late.

The teachers' strike is setting the cat among the pigeons. Teachers have received the short end of the stick for a decade or so, since they were led up the garden path over their allowances. They care for our young, they keep them safe when we are busy being busy. The Cabinet Secretary for Education is adamant that the deal that the teachers reached with the government has been honoured in full. The teachers' unions are equally adamant that their members are not going back to school until they are paid what they are owed.

Jaindi Kisero, writing in the Daily Nation, argues that the public wage bill has become unsustainable and that the teachers' strike is an opportunity to set things right (Diverting money meant for laptops to pay teachers won't save economy, Daily Nation, 26/06/13.) He is right, too, that the debate on how much we pay our public officers has been hijacked by an elite few; the wider public remains uninformed and unengaged.

The public service was always going to expand in size and scope. Now that we are busily entrenching devolution, it is set to get ever larger. So too will be the amount of public funds devoted to paying for the public service. The solution, such as it is, is a choice between freezing public pay until the revenues collected by the government can be sustainably employed in employing the public service or rationalising and harmonising the pay of all public officers. The former is the relatively easier choice; the latter, as we saw when the judiciary almost went on strike, is fraught with great political risk.

It is the latter, though, that must be done. It is unfair that the men and women we trust with our children, our safety or our health have to play second fiddle to nabobs in Nairobi. The two-tier public service that was bequeathed on Kenya by the Dream Team has become a sore point with the rank-and-file of the public service. It is being perpetuated at a time when the Constitution declares the equality and equal treatment of all Kenyans, including public servants.

While it might have been the sensible compromise to make, the Committee of Experts was wrong to entrench the separation of public and State officers. All State officers, now, strut around as some sort of special people. The British system of honours that we claimed to have rejected, is reflected in this idea that if a public servant is an elected representative, or a judge, or a member of a constitutional commission, or a holder of an independent office. While, because of our fractured history, it is necessary to provide for special rules for the discipline of State officers, it is wrong to give them an elevated economic position for it too. In a nation that takes pride in how many development partners that support its programmes, a nation who's economy is incapable of paying for the programmes being supported by development partners, it is insane to tell one set of public servants that despite their sacrifices, they are a little...less.

Many play down the effect of human emotions, like jealousy, in economic decision-making. There is a small cohort of public officers that see a small elite snuffling in the truffles of public funds while they have to make do with scraps. The fight against corruption in the public service will be lost if there is an elite group that not only enjoys the best that public funds can provide, but a social status that  many think is undeserved. If the rationalisation or harmonisation of public pay is not done, when the teachers are done with their strike, it will be policemen, doctors, nurses, garbage collectors, prisons officers or ordinary civil servants who'll embark on their own.

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