Vet trips of state officials – Ablakwa proposes

General News of Monday, 1 April 2013

Source: Joy Online

Ablakwa Okudjeto

Deputy Minister Designate for Education, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa has suggested that all invitations to international conferences that require the country to purchase flight tickets for Ministers and other public officials should be vetted.

This, he said, would ensure that foreign travels by public officials strictly meet the nation’s development priorities.

“The sizes of such delegations should also be scrutinized. Foreign travels have always been a burden on the public purse and should meet stricter regulations,” he remarked.

Mr Ablakwa was commenting on the raging debate on the size of government in a six-point suggestions imbedded in an opinion piece exclusively copied to Myjoyonline.com, which he thought the debate could be centered on to nurture and grow Ghana’s democracy.

“It is my considered view that the debate which has so far concentrated on numbers is with all due respect overly simplistic,” he underscored.

Mr Ablakwa, who is also the Member of Parliament for North Tongu, indicated that it was unfortunate for persons who should know better to christen President Mahama’s appointment as “jobs for the boys and girls”.

“I am without an iota of doubt that President John Mahama who is widely known as a modest and sensitive politician would not set about to waste or dissipate scarce resources on what some have christened “jobs for the boys and girls.” I believe strongly that with President Mahama’s tremendous and exemplary experience and conduct in public office, he is more than conscious of the fact that the matter in issue goes beyond just numbers and the salaries of Ministers.”

DEBATE ON SIZE OF GOVERNMENT – MY TAKE

I have followed the raging debate on the vexed issue of the size of government and wish to express my own personal views on the matter.

I believe the debate is a very useful one and Ghanaians ought to be commended for showing high interest in our governance system and serving as vanguards of the public purse.

I am aware that this debate is perhaps one of Ghana’s longest debates and that anytime a new government is formed probably since independence there is considerable interest in the size of the executive. It is also obvious that this debate has become more vigorous in the fourth republic and that political parties who in opposition have promised smaller governments have tended to be unable to keep their promise sometimes leading to apologies being rendered to the nation.

The current debate is taking place at a time President John Dramani Mahama has indicated the implementation of the Single Spine Pay Policy has brought us to a juncture where more than 60% of national revenue is spent on salaries. Indeed the President in what has become a famous reference indicated in his State of the Nation Address that “the meat is now down to the bone.” Of course, further labour agitations for pay rise and payment of arrears and allowances coupled with challenges in the utility subsector largely believed to be caused by many years of inadequate investment in the sector have all made the current debate on the size of government even more contextually relevant.

It is my considered view that the debate which has so far concentrated on numbers is with all due respect overly simplistic. Some have maintained that Ghana is a relatively small country in population and therefore could make do with 40 or 30 Ministers. I hold the view that this way of looking at the matter in issue is grossly misleading.

Simply put, this debate fails if we place the emphasis solely on the number of ministers. We ought to realize that it is possible to have only 20 Ministers and yet spend more on them than we will be spending on 85 Ministers. For example, if we permitted these 20 Ministers to engage special assistants at the expense of the State, if we permitted these 20 Ministers the liberty to use any fuel guzzling official vehicles of their choice, if we permitted these 20 Ministers unlimited access to fuel coupons, phone calls and flight tickets to all manner of conferences, then we will be confronted with a situation where we would have reduced the number of ministers and yet the State will be spending more on these few Ministers as compared to what will be spent on a 100 or 120 Ministers.

Another factor which has been lost in the debate is the size of the non-ministerial staff within the executive. A President may well decide to play to the gallery by appointing relatively fewer Ministers of State which would reflect in the public mind as a lean government as these appointees go through parliament’s public vetting cum approval and then public swearing-in by the President and yet appoint an army if not a crowd of Presidential staffers, Presidential aides and Presidential advisors whose appointments may not even be announced to the public and hence a false sense of a lean government would have been created rather contrary to the reality.

Despite the cliché that democracy is expensive, I am in firm agreement with all those who want to see a government which is not a drain but responsible and sensitive to the prevailing reality by efficiently utilizing scarce resources, cutting down cost and preventing an unwieldy executive, however, it will be essential to move the debate beyond the present numbers game.

I am without an iota of doubt that President John Mahama who is widely known as a modest and sensitive politician would not set about to waste or dissipate scarce resources on what some have christened “jobs for the boys and girls.” I believe strongly that with President Mahama’s tremendous and exemplary experience and conduct in public office, he is more than conscious of the fact that the matter in issue goes beyond just numbers and the salaries of Ministers.

In my personal view therefore, in order for the nation to make progress after this debate and not leave this very important matter to become an empty cycle of mere talk every four years, we need to begin paying attention to pragmatic things we can do moving forward to show that we are strengthening our resolve to protect the public purse. As we nurture and grow our democracy therefore, we can decide not only to keep our eyes on the numbers of ministers but most importantly keep our eyes on the following:

1) Maintain and enforce the decision to abolish special assistants and special aides to Ministers paid by the State except that Ministers can hire such persons and pay them privately thus from their own resources if they so wish.

2) There should be equal public interest in the number of Presidential Advisors, Presidential Aides, Presidential Staffers and others engaged at the Presidency and the list should be made public in the interest of transparency and good governance. I was amazed to see a rather unending list of Presidential staffers and consultants at the Presidency during the transition that ushered out one of our former Presidents.

3) Vet all invitations to international conferences that require the State of Ghana to purchase flight tickets for Ministers and other public officials and ensure that foreign travels by public officials strictly meet our nation’s development priorities. The sizes of such delegations should also be scrutinized. Foreign travels have always been a burden on the public purse and should meet stricter regulations.

4) Ban the use of cross country vehicles for intra-city usage. Only fuel efficient salon vehicles should be used for such purposes. All public officials should learn from the current President and other colleagues who make it a point to observe this. This will lead to savings in fuel consumption.

5) Match fuel coupons to registration numbers of official vehicles. In other words, fuel coupons should come with specific vehicle numbers so that only authorized persons and vehicles will utilize these fuel coupons. This will ensure fuel coupons are used by its intended public officials and its intended official vehicles. When this is done, we will see a curtailment of fuel coupons getting into the wrong hands and fuel getting into wrong vehicles.

6) Develop new specifications for the kind of vehicles that will be designated as official vehicles to also achieve uniformity and make savings. The objective here is to ensure that government takes advantage of new technology in fuel efficiency such as hybrid vehicles and vehicles with very limited fuel consumption capacity that do not necessarily compromise safety.

I hold the humble view that if the current debate is moved forward in this light, Ghana would be better for it.

Whiles I commend Ghanaians and the media for the focus on this healthy debate, may I take the opportunity to correct an erroneous impression that has been created. In their contributions to the debate, I have heard many say that as soon as Ministers are vetted, approved and sworn in, they are given new cars, new houses, cooks, garden boys and other domestic servants. I believe this debate must proceed in a truthful and fair manner. For the records; Ministers are not given cooks, garden boys and other domestic servants. It is also not accurate to create the impression that new vehicles are always bought for all Ministers upon assuming office. Ministers except in extremely rare circumstances use vehicles which have been left behind for them in a pool by their predecessors. Some of these vehicles could even be more than seven to ten years old. Sometimes ministers work for several months without official vehicles in instances where old vehicles are broken down or auctioned before the ministers were appointed. For example, since we assumed office in 2009, it was not until the second quarter of 2012 that the Ministry of Information was able to procure cross country vehicles for Hon. James Agyenim Boateng and myself who served as Deputy Ministers in that Ministry. It is also worth mentioning that there are a good number of Ministers who did use and indeed still use their personal vehicles for official engagements and also choose to reside in their own homes.

As we carry on with this debate, let us also remember that there are many Ministers who in terms of salaries and general conditions of service are disadvantaged as compared to what they used to earn in the private sector. Many Ministers are therefore making sacrifices for their country and they ought to be acknowledged in order to attract many more of their likes into public office.

It may also be worthy of note that there are many Chief Executives of State Enterprises and Authorities who earn far more than the President and his Ministers hence the impression being created that there is a few privileged elite politicians bent on draining the national kitty is not only unfair but also unsupported by the evidence.

I remain positive that the on-going debate on the size of government and how a developing nation like Ghana could best utilize scarce resources is absolutely relevant except that we must all ensure that this debate is holistic in character and considers the full picture but most importantly it should necessarily lead to useful cost-saving governance improvements like my six-point suggestion and anymore that the good people and experts of our great nation may so decide to add.

All said and done, I believe our nation is in very capable hands. I am without a doubt that President Mahama would work hard to increase the nation’s resources and create opportunities for all regardless of age, sex, tribe, creed or partisan preference.

Let us build a better Ghana together.

Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa (Member of Parliament for North Tongu and Deputy Minister Designate for Education)

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