Why the merger of UNRA back into the Ministry of Works is going to be an unmitigated disaster
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | In the last few years, the government of Uganda has been latching from one bad policy move to another with incredible consistency. One of such policy was “rationalisation” of the myriad agencies it had created. This move was good policy but faltered because it was applied arbitrarily. I am among those in the mid 2000s who spearheaded a campaign against runway expenditure on public administration. And my biggest quarry was the creation of these myriad semi-autonomous government commissions and agencies.
Yet when it came to doing what I had campaigned for, government decided to throw the baby with the bathwater. The best example is UNRA. Many countries have actually established specialised agencies to manage those parts of the economy they have selected as strategic. In 2007, government made the development of road infrastructure a core strategic goal. UNRA was created and joined URA (for revenue collection) and UIA (to attract investments). In some ways, this was not really new. In 1983, government created NWSC out of the Department of Water Development in the Ministry of Water and Environment to provide water in urban areas.
In spite of its many problems, Allen Kagina, its leader, has built an effective organisation at UNRA, with a strong espirit de corp and a culture among its staff that shows a high commitment to meet national road infrastructure goals. Just when UNRA was becoming more effective and efficient; backed by highly motivated staff, the government decided to return its role and activities to a department at the Ministry of Works. The justification for this move defies both common sense and government policy.
Government claims that UNRA is being merged into the Ministry of Works in order to reduce costs. The biggest cost reduction is going to come from reducing salaries of staff, the vast majority of whom (about 900 of them and over 80% of the total staff) are engineers. According to the government paper on this reform, salaries of engineers at UNRA will be brought into line with those of staff at the Ministry of Works in order to end salary disparities. This means salaries for UNRA engineers are going to be cut by 70%. This is being done by a government that has also committed to increase the salaries of scientists, apparently to motivate them to work better.
In pursuit of this policy, government has increased salaries of science teachers by anything between 300% to 400%. The same has been done for doctors and nurses. I find it contradictory that government believes it should motivate scientists (science teachers and doctors) with a 300% to 400% wage increase but at the same time cut the salaries of another class of scientists (engineers) by 70%. And this is a government that claims to take technology seriously. Even a child of seven years can see the stupidity of such policy.
At any rate, I don’t believe that increased pay motivates people to work more effectively or efficiently. Many studies make a similar conclusion. People work best when they make a leap in identity – when they identify themselves with the goals and objectives of an organisation; when they come to see the results of their work as a reflection of the most treasured aspects of their self-image. One can see themselves as a great journalist. Therefore, they will want to see themselves (excellent journalism) in the products of their work. Hence people are motivated by identity, not money.
More still, while increased pay does not necessarily and always motivate workers to work more effectively and efficiently, studies show that reduced salaries actually, always and inevitably, demotivate people. Imagine yourself an engineer at UNRA earning Shs15 million. Now imagine you are taken to the Ministry of Works to earn Shs4 million, 70% less than you were earning for the same work. The first feeling is that government does not recognise the full worth of your contribution. You lose morale. As many studies show, it is very hard to motivate people yet easy to demotivate them.
As a UNRA engineer, the organisation that gave you a sense of identity and belonging has been disbanded. Your motivation was in looking at yourself as part of an elite part of government championing national transformation. That culture does not exist in the ministry, which you have always seen as moribund and Jurassic. What happens when you are transferred there? The answer is obvious: you will not put in enough of your energy. In fact, if the decision were left to me, I would not have hired anyone from UNRA to join the Ministry of Works. The costs of lost expertise would be more than compensated by not hiring people who have no morale at all.
Be that as it may, we need to ask ourselves: what is really likely to happen? Consider any good engineer with excellent skills and every proud of their accomplishments. This is a person whose possibilities are many and horizons long. Such an engineer will not go to the Ministry of Works on a 70% pay-cut. Instead, they will be hired by private firms, national and international, hungry for his skills. This means only those engineers without great skills and unattractive to the market will go to the ministry. Essentially government has decided to lose the best and take trash.
There is yet another problem. Some good engineers may actually decide to take the 70% pay-cut and join the ministry. I do not see many good Samaritans ready to provide charity to a government whose top leaders indulge in corruption on a scale unseen in our country before. The only reason for them to join the ministry of works on a pay-cut is expectations of joining the looting machine. In other words, we have now created the incentives for increasing corruption and incompetence in the road sector. Hence, we can say kwaheri to roads being a strategic sector of the economy.
Now I can make my predictions. The best engineers at UNRA will not go to the Ministry of Works. Those who do, even when good, will not be motivated to work effectively or efficiently. The road sector has thus been pushed ten years backwards. We are going to see a rapid decline in the rate at which new roads are built followed by deterioration of the quality of existing roads, horrible road maintenance efforts and graft on a scale that will make Mobutu’s Zaire pale into insignificance (there is hyperbole here). Happy new year!!