IMANI Alert: Single Spine Salary Agitations: Signs of Things to Come

Friday, September 17, 2010

DemoThis week, Prison wardens in Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi went all rowdy and begun lighting up pneumatic bonfires in protest at their employers, the Government of Ghana. The actions of the Prison Service personnel in Kumasi is but a taste of things to come if somebody doesn’t get up and take a long, hard, look at this “single spine” enchilada. 

This week, Prison wardens in Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi went all rowdy and begun lighting up pneumatic bonfires in protest at their employers, the Government of Ghana.

The prison wardens, more known for their preoccupation with straightening out the wretched sinful of our society in regimented campuses across our country, decided to throw all caution to the wind this time around and disabuse our minds of the notion that the least hint of hanky-panky is beyond the ironed-khaki ones.

The actions of the Prison Service personnel in Kumasi is but a taste of things to come if somebody doesn’t get up and take a long, hard, look at this “single spine” enchilada. We kid you not: we may just be witnessing the first rivulets of a torrent of public sector agitation like this nation has barely seen in its half-century of existence.

Simply put, “single spine” is a pack of tricks. It is smoke and mirrors. It is a diversionary tactic embraced by the state of Ghana to side-step the critical issues that have faced it since the unfinished business of structural adjustment – aye, that reform mess – was stacked up onto the unwilling in-trays of the despondent post-military inheritors of our 4th Republican political reality. It is a mishmash of incoherent reforms pretending to be serious government business. We will not mince any words, friends: “single spine” is here to give us false hop.

The fundamental logic of single spine is crooked. Wage harmonisation in the public sector betrays an arrogance of central planning rarely encountered in our tepid age of policymaking. The fact that it is riskier to clear virgin forest and more backbreaking to till the tired earth with hoes and cutlasses, plant corn, and harvest a depressing couple of sacks of maize, does not in any way prepare the ground for a demand to be paid at the same level as the favourite radio presenters of Accra’s swankier stations.

We hear you protest: terrible analogy! In the public service, they all have the same employer – the State, you exclaim, breathlessly. This is callous, IMANI, you roar.

But you are wrong. It is in fact a very similar principle at work. There is no credible science that can, without descending into farce, establish equivalences between different job roles in different settings outside of the universally dominant pricing system for everything, including labour.  The “price signal mechanism” is the greatest processor of information related to financial motivation and reward known to man, and the state of Ghana aint gonna invent a superior method anytime soon.

A price mechanism for labour, in the specific context of this matter, allows for different ministries, departments and agencies to be evaluated on the basis of their differing contributions to government program, which is then reflected in their budgetary allocations and staff strength, and ultimately in the wage packets of their employees.

We concede that in government setting this process is compromised in a number of significant ways because the objective of a government program is less clear-cut. In the case of the private sector, it’s simple: profit. As a waged labourer, your contribution to profit-making determines your wage by way of supply and demand forces (i.e. those most likely to contribute the most to profit-making are also the most likely to be scarcest within the workforce).

That is why it is of little consequence that the farm hands who work for BlueSkies – the Ghanaian fruit processor – and break their backs to secure the supply of the company’s raw material are not compensated in the same fashion as that ever-nagging corporate financial accountant or general counsel, however less back-breaking the actual day-to-day routine of the latter employees may entail.

We hear you argue that we are ignoring several critical driving factors, such as education and experience, and therefore that we are failing to recognise the possibility of matching different employees across different work settings within the public service.

The truth is that even these factors are secondary. People hire “business facilitators” everyday with scant regard to either education or experience. Tony Blair does not get to become a Senior Advisor to banking giant JPMorgan Chase because he is the most professionally qualified or experienced for the job but because in the final analysis his contribution to their ability to generate profit is hefty enough to command the reported multimillion dollar deal.

A lot of otherwise badly-skilled well-connected people are in jobs earning several multiples more than your average high-flying professional. In most of these cases, the factors that determine the different levels of remuneration are intangible and complex and of course hard to model and manipulate in your standard consulting matrix.

It is precisely because the objectives of the public service, and thus the differential contributions of different workers, can get easily convoluted that we struggle to design a “fair” wage structure for its staff. The imperfect system that has evolved is nonetheless superior to “single spine”. Said system spontaneously and organically processes information about the relative political importance of different roles and remunerates accordingly. It is a hellish task any other way. And it doesn’t matter if your name is Austin Gamey, either:-).

It may sound brutal but it is also realism. The diverse political merits of different public sector job specifications are tied to their relative importance in the preservation of the regime in place. A whole range of very complex factors, without design or control, filter into that historical, cultural, spontaneous, evolutionary, organic process and spits out the results we see in terms of the disparities in wage levels across the public service. Subconsciously, latently and systemically, these are the factors that have shaped the public sector remuneration landscape. It may look unwieldy, imperfect, even unjust, but it is the product of far more complex circumstances that can be ironed out by some committee of geniuses.

That process can scarcely be curtailed by “single spine”, except at the risk of great commotion. That is because for such a centrally determined process to obtain superior outcomes to the situation as it currently obtains, it would have to be extremely efficient in processing these extremely complex sets of data. And it would probably still fail.

It may look simpler when you are sitting behind your consultant’s brief. You take “educational qualifications”, “levels of experience”, “grading systems”, “occupational hazards”, “duty burdens”, “length of service” etc. etc. etc. and string them all together into this elaborate machine and hey presto: Single Spine! But in practice, it is a total nightmare.

The complexities of trying to centrally determine how all these factors interplay mean that the vast majority of workers shall feel cheated and aggrieved and the end result shall be a spiral of agitation in seemingly endless cycles. Once one MDA is appeased, along comes another. And so on and so forth. For a grave matter like this it is perhaps not prudent to quote Doris Day, but we can’t resist: que sera sera: what shall be shall be.

So what can be done to at least bring to bear a semblance of efficiency (away from the utopia envisaged by single spine)?

First, decentralise that tottering structure called the public service.

Introduce a whole new bunch of public-private partnerships to improve upon the price signal mechanisms at different levels (i.e. private participants reveal critical hitherto unprocessed information through their financial decision-making that hekp in the spontaneous setting of wages). Next, rationalise the whole damn thing.

Some MDAs are so ineffective today that they corrode the fabric of the entire system, and they are better off abolished.

Effective public – private partnerships can replace them. When is the last time you noticed that Parks & Gardens, as a government department, is virtually dead? You didn’t notice because they have been “living-dead” for as long as those of us who were not born before the Yaa Asantewaa war can remember.

Decentralisation shall mean some functions presently being managed from Accra – “managed” according to the joke at least – shall devolve to the regions and be managed at Municipal and Metropolitan levels. The whole notion of a national ministry of tourism for instance is laughable. The tourism function of national development is better approached, even from a strategic perspective, as a decentralised process led by local departments and institutions who know best the competitive advantage of their own local offerings. When it comes to overall national branding, that task is the duty of the Foreign Service, and its seventy-plus diplomatic “missions” abroad.

All this rationalisation should inevitably lead to a reduction in public service staff numbers. Ghana’s wage bill at 11% of GDP is amongst the highest in Africa and completely unsustainable in a growth-focussed economy. It has become a messy drag and is the main cause of low morale in the public service, since it limits the capacity of the government to raise real wages in order to attract and motivate much needed talent in the sector. Hence the perpetual sense of “underemployment” in our cherished civil service.

True: we need more teachers and nurses and doctors and perhaps even agricultural extension officers, but the answer is not to continue bloating the public service but to encourage private sector participation through innovative mechanisms that guarantee social protection for the poor. Letting fertiliser distribution companies into the agricultural extension space is a clear example of such potential policy innovation (they share government objective of seeing farmers improve upon their agronomy)

These are the real issues. Our respect for the Fair Wages Commission and its redoubtable senior management notwithstanding, we believe they are embarked on a thankless and ultimately futile exercise in all this single spine harmonisation business.

We may sound overbearing and insensitive, but a nation sometimes needs to be told the hard truths and we are happy to volunteer for this thankless task at this time.

Courtesy IMANI Center for Policy & Education and www.AfricanLiberty.Org