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Permanent Secretaries are hopelessly unaccountable

SHARE   |   Friday, 26 October 2018   |   By Ricardo Kanono
Ramokate-PS MSYC Ramokate-PS MSYC

Let me from the outset state that by using the word hopelessly, I am not casting any aspersions on Permanent Secretaries because it would rude and disrespectful of me to do so. I have simply used it to describe the hopelessness that accrues from their inability to convincingly account for public funds as accounting officers. No offence is therefore intended. Permanent Secretaries, by virtue of their positions, are the accounting officers and administrative heads of their ministries. Administratively, all things good or bad are firmly located at their doorsteps and they must therefore take personal responsibilities which they rarely do. If they do, one senses that they do so grudgingly. 

In terms of their reporting lines, there is the Permanent Secretary to the President who is the appointing authority on one hand and the Minister who happens to be the political principal on the other. The core functions of Permanent Secretaries amongst others, are to manage and implement policies and programmes brought about by their political principals through budget allocations. These budget allocations are meant to effectively and efficiently operationalize the many different departments and entities under their portfolios unavoidably, with tangible and measured outcomes. These outcomes are under normal circumstances, key performance indicators to measure the successes or failures of Permanent Secretaries to consequently inform the appointing authority whether to retain or dismiss them.  

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As a means of evaluating the performance or lack thereof of Permanent Secretaries, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has over time immemorial hosted them to offer them a public platform to inform the public what they are made of in terms of accounting for their budget allocations and other related matters. Regrettably and perhaps largely due to ‘serious and demonstrable lax to public duty’ as shown by glaring issues of un-accountability across ministries as far back as one can remember, Permanent Secretaries have always appeared to be unprepared, seriously low or lacking in confidence, puzzled or patently overwhelmed by questions posed by either the PAC or the Parliamentary Committee on Statutory Bodies and Public Enterprises. For example, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry Mme Peggy Serame was in 2017 before the PAC asked by her current political principal Minister Bogolo Kenewendo who was a PAC member then if my memory serves me well, whether the Coordinator of SPEDU Revitalisation Unit Mme Linah Mohohlo reported to her or not. Serame is reported to have said ‘batho nthusang hoo (guys help me out)-See The Patriot on Sunday dated 5 June 2017. I mean, this was a purely administrative question which given Serame’s position in this ministry, should have attracted a routine and untroubling answer. If Mma Mohohlo reported to her or the Minister, she shouldn’t have struggled to a point where she would seek assistance from her juniors. Because I cannot deal with every Permanent Secretary’s unaccountability due to space constraint, I will pick the recent underperformances of the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture (MYESC) Rre Kago Ramokate and that of the Ministry of Transport and Communications Rre Kabelo Ebineng at the PAC. I will be fair to them by stating that their situations obtain in other ministries as revelations at the PAC have always confirmed now and in the past.

It has been reported across the private print media that Rre Ramokate struggled to account for the recovery of about P 400 million dispensed to some young people through his ministry’s Youth Development Fund (YDF) because the ministry’s data base on these young people was not readily available to pursue them to pay back the money. An obvious question should naturally arise: how would Rre Ramokate disburse public funds under his custody to young people whose personal details he did not have at the time of disbursement which he is now frantically trying to find and which by the look of things, he may never get? Would a bank for example loan you money and thereafter run after you for your personal details? The explanation by Rre Ramokate is with the greatest of respect, akin to that of a school boy. It is neither plausible nor convincing but seriously laughable to say the least.

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It has also emerged that the ministry does not have the guidelines on YDF and that these are still being worked on and would be ready next year. Are we expected to believe this? Not by any stretch of the imagination! There were also revelations that the ministry owes the Botswana National Service Programme participants about P 13 million which it is struggling to credit into their accounts. To put salt into injury is the BOT 50 conundrum that has rocked Rre Ramokate’s ministry under his watch where there are serious issues of poor procurement processes and procedures that have remained unresolved since 2016 to date. The Auditor General has according to the Sunday Standard dated October 14-20, 2018 observed that “….BOT procurement process was characterised by waivers for direct appointments which defeated the principle of competition and transparency aimed at the achievement of value for money. While Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB) regulations concerning emergency procurement may be permitted only for emergencies the report observed that direct appointments by MYESC were in some circumstances for activities planned up to two years prior and as such their procurement should have been done on time. There were also weaknesses on the evaluation of tender documents, the report found.” The Auditor General wouldn’t have described the state of procurement at MYESC any better.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Communications Rre Kabelo Ebineng came under fire, and correctly so, on the over P1 billion unaccounted for e-Government programme. The Patriot on Sunday dated September 30, 2018 carried a report headlined ‘Dysfunctional e-Gov gobbles P 1 billion.’ The report states that ‘The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Transport and Communications Kabelo Ebineng admitted that the implementation of e-Government was non-existent, with financial resources budgeted for the programme channelled where they were not intended to.’ It emerged that the department’s estimated budget was P 871 million and the officer who was called to state how the money was used Oratile Thobogang said she was not comfortable to reveal how the money was spent….the figures showed that the total budget for e-government was P 1.3 million and P 1.2 billion has been spent yet there is nothing to show.’ Bear in mind that this is public money yet the public officer entrusted by her public office to know where it is musters the courage not to tell people who authorised it how it has been spent. Where does the discomfort with public information on public money come from? Is she scared to disclose where the money was spent because it could possibly expose the fat cats? Is withholding such information not misconduct punishable by the Public Service Act? 

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There is no point in overemphasising the fact that public funds that have gone down the drain if that is the case in the above-mentioned ministries of about P 1.5 billion would have reasonably changed the lives of some Batswana for the better. Yet people who have failed to account for this figure are themselves Batswana who may be having relatives, distant or immediate, who would have benefitted one way or the other. A culture of non-accountability by Permanent Secretaries has been allowed to manifest itself to a painful point where it has become the norm. They know very well that at some point during the year they will appear before the PAC, fumble under the pretext of ‘accounting’, get grilled by the same PAC before the media and get back to their plush offices. End of the story.

Like I have mentioned above, there are two authorities meant to supervise Permanent Secretaries: Ministers as political principals and the Permanent Secretary to the President as the administrative principal through the Public Service Act. These authorities are equally guilty and complicit to the non-accountability of Permanent Secretaries because they are failing to use such authority and power vested in them to whip Permanent Secretaries into order. They say a fish rots from the head down. Departments and State Owned Enterprises falling under Permanent Secretaries cannot be expected to perform and be accountable when their Permanent Secretaries do not do so. That is why State Owned Enterprises are swimming in the muddy waters of poor corporate governance and un-accountability.   It beats me hands down why, particularly Ministers and in whose interests service delivery to us is important for their political careers and survival, treat underperforming Permanent Secretaries with kid’s gloves. Gullible as we are, we have as citizens allowed the status quo to remain and entrench itself by electing the very same Ministers who are dismally failing to ensure that public funds authorised by parliament to make a difference in our lives are not accounted for by Permanent Secretaries and by extension, by the political leadership.

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Would you believe that the President has just appointed a Commission to look at salaries and conditions of service of amongst others, the very Ministers who cannot through their Permanent Secretaries tell us what happened to the P 400 million YDF and the over P 1 billion e-Government ‘non-existent’ programme? The Commission should ask the question whether the Ministers have through their Permanent Secretaries sufficiently accounted for public funds allocated to them and whether there are tangible outcomes therefrom to justify looking at their salaries and conditions of service let alone adjusting them upwards.  I am afraid the opposite is the case based on the examples of ministries referred to in this conversation. The President, his Deputy and Ministers given their current upkeep by the State and compared to other Batswana who don’t even qualify for namola leuba, should under the prevailing and shrinking economic conditions, be able to soldier on. Is the President not aware that his Ministers are not performing as per the revelations at the PAC and the PCSBPE?

If Permanent Secretaries were hopefully, genuinely and honestly accountable, the lives of Batswana would be far better off in many respects than what is currently the case. It appears Permanent Secretaries will in the foreseeable future or even beyond, remain hopelessly unaccountable because nobody seems to be intent on ensuring that accountability is the highest priority. In the process, Batswana will forever become the victims of lack of accountability by both the politicians and civil servants.  But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Judge for Yourself!

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