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Headcount puzzle on government payroll

Capital Hill

Government departments do not employ people every month, let alone in their hundreds.

Neither do they retrench them, again in their hundreds, just a month or two after putting them on the payroll.

But this is what seems to be happening in the government system, Malawi News can reveal, raising fears that this is a conduit for some officers to syphon money from the public purse.

We have in our possession a Payroll Performance document for 2020/21 Financial Year dated October (2020). The document is a summary of number of employees and funding for salaries for 52 ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and 28 councils for three months – August, September and October 2020.

Details show variations in number of civil servants paid every month and inconsistencies in the public sector wage bill.

In some cases, there are wage bill discrepancies within a government department from month to month.

Ordinarily, consistent with the recruitment patterns in government, the expectation is that there cannot be a sharp increase or a sharp decrease in number of employees of a government agency.

For example, according to the summary, Ntchisi District Council had a total of 3, 984 employees in August 2020. A month later in September, the number of employees for the council shot to 4, 373. This means that the council recruited 389 employees within 30 days.

Surprisingly, the number of employees for the council dropped to 4, 119 in October 2020.

Similar patterns are also shown for councils such as Lilongwe, Zomba, Dowa, Phalombe and Chitipa and the Department of Energy and Mines.

According to the record, in August 2020 the Department of Energy had 3,964 employees. In September, the number of employees declined to 3,862. The figure went further down in October at 3,844.

The record shows that Zomba District Council had a total of 8, 849 employees in August 2020 but the number dropped by 659 to 8, 190 employees in the month of September and dropped even further by 8 employees in October the same year.

Dowa District Council had a total of 6, 820 employees in August but the number rose by 172 to 6, 992 employees in September before dropping by 124 in October the same year.

In most entries, the rise in number of employees has seen a corresponding rise in total wage bill. But there are also variations that attract one’s attention in that even when the number of employees has risen the salary amounts remain lower.

For example, Dowa District Council wage bill for August 2020 was K851 million for 6,820 employees; K591 million for 6,992 employees in September and K847 million for 6,868 employees in October.

In sum, the report shows that in the 52 MDAs and 28 councils, there was a total of 228,762 employees in August, 229,610 in September and 229,598 in October.

The respective wage bills for that period were as follows: K40,044,437,138.29 in August; K40,040,632,592.49 in September and K40,709,376,765.79 in October.

Interestingly, some of the councils we contacted denied having made any recruitments or retrenchments in the period in question – which would explain the considerable rise and decline of the number of their employees.

Zomba City Council Public Relations Officer Mercy Chaluma said the council had neither retrenched nor recruited staff in the month of August to October in 2020.

In Dowa, District Commissioner Alex Mdooko said the district had no funds to recruit staff in the 2020/21 financial year. But the payroll shows that the district recruited 172 employees in the month of August.

“In August we had the following: 2 retirement, 2 mandatory retirement 2 deceased. In September we had 1 mandatory retirement 2 deceased. All these are from the year 2020,” Mdooko said.

We contacted Treasury spokesperson Williams Banda for an explanation on these variations. He referred Malawi News to the Department of Human Resource Management Development  (DHRMD) to explain factors that lead to the variations in workforce in the civil service.

Principal Secretary for the department, Blessings Chilabade, did not give any response, referring us instead to spokesperson for the department, Kennie Mtonga, who did not readily have answers either for questions we sent him in the morning on Friday.

However, a source at the Treasury told Malawi News that such variations on the payroll are not normal.

“That is one way people in government steal money,” he said.

But Executive Director for Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency (CSAT) Willy Kambwandira feared that the variations could be a sign of enormous colluding and conniving among public officers particularly those in human resources and finance departments to defraud government.

He has since demanded investigations against officers responsible at the Accountant General and DHRMD.

“This continued revelation of abuse on government payroll simply tells us that the much-hyped headcounts are inadequate and a drain to the public purse, and are only conducted to fatten some people’s pockets.

“While we applaud government efforts to remove ghost workers from the payroll we are also greatly worried with inaction against public officers who manipulate government payroll system,” Kambwandira said.

Government has for the past years lost a lot of money through ghosts workers who were being included on payrolls by a selected team of individuals within its system.

For instance, an audit undertaken by National Audit Office (NAO) for the 2015/16 financial year cited continued existence of ghost workers and civil servants taking home double salaries as among the factors bleeding the public purse.

The audit found that physically non-existent employees but found on the government on the payroll were common in various departments such as energy and mines, irrigation and water development, agriculture, health and education, Science and technology.

The same ministries and departments were also found to be culprits of manipulation of salaries and allowances.

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