Stern measures to help economy

The National,Friday June 10th, 2016

IN the present tough economic and financial situation Papua New Guinea is faced with, all eyes are on the custodians of the public purse – the Government and its public service machinery.
Any area of expenditure will have to be weighed and justified and subjected to normal scrutiny. This is when austerity and cost saving comes to the fore in public expenditure planning.
The public service is expected to exercise prudence, foregoing all unnecessary spending, even on areas that would be considered routine under better financial situations.
It is envisaged that Chief Secretary Isaac Lupari’s resolve to continue with the reforms in the way the public service does business will bear the desired results.
And wherever possible, we hope the public service will be run as a business – not necessarily to make a profit but to improve on efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Lupari has reaffirmed that under his leadership, the public service is further looking within itself to identify and remove expenditure that it can comfortably do so without compromising its core functions of service delivery.
We are told that while cutting back on non-essentials, the Government tries to ensure that all essential expenditure relating to key priorities is funded weekly.
Part of this involves minimising spending on non-core activities such as the purchase of vehicles and overseas travel, and allowances that are outside of the normal pay policy.
One of the biggest cost cutting measures undertaken now is in reducing government office rentals.  It is understood that K250 million was spent on rentals last year, which is a huge cost that can be saved if all state agencies are accommodated in a centralised government-owned location.
That process of moving all government officials to government buildings is underway.
Further, a review of salaries and allowances from a figure of around K300 million in 2015 is also being done and an audit will be appointed to clear the government payroll system with the view to identify and remove anomalies.
Another cost-saving mechanism pointed to is the rationalisation of all consultancy jobs to eliminate those that can be performed by officers within the public service.  Except in areas requiring specific skills not found within the public service, all consultancy jobs will have to go.
The large and cumbersome public service payroll has been open to abuse by unscrupulous people for many years. The abuse happens, so it seems, because the opportunity presents itself.
Lately, however, the positive achievements in the public service in general and in particular changes at the Department of Personnel Management and the reforms announced by the Chief Secretary can be likened to a new dawn on the horizon.
We understand that the public service reforms and expenditure controls were put to the test during the recent meeting of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) heads of government in Port Moresby. We are told that the expenses related to the organising and facilitating of the forum would have been much higher than what was actually spent had it not been for these changes.
A few years ago, a shadow provincial public service had been allowed to actually siphon large amounts of public money. For a time it seemed that a separate payroll of ghost civil servants was being run in parallel with the actual payroll of actual people occupying the same public service jobs.
Over time the ghost employees were uncovered and their free money stopped flowing although recouping all that loss is much too difficult. Such manipulation and abuse should be minimised or eliminated if the public service reforms championed by the chief secretary are allowed to continue.
The reforms may look good on paper or sound good to an audience in a conference hall.  However, as far as the public is concerned, those cost-cutting measures will have to be translated into continued or better services delivery, even during tough economic times.
Tragically, the past few weeks of university student protests ending with a bloody confrontation with police this week are in part over the perceived mismanagement of the economy and uncontrolled public expenditure.
Any reform in the public sector must, therefore, make an impact in improving lives and that the Government is seen to live its promises.
That, in the least, is what the public is asking for.