Friday, August 14, 2009

The Menace of 'Ghost Workers'

The ghost worker syndrome has been a menace across all tiers of government for years. Annually, millions of naira is siphoned from government coffers through salary payments to non-existing employees, who have fraudulently been listed on the payroll system. Some of these employees may include retired civil servants, deceased people or pure fictitious names. One major cause is the absence of civil service regulations, which allows corrupt civil servants to increase government expenditure through the placement of ghost workers on the payroll.

The Accountant-General of the Federation, Alhaji Hassan Dankwambo was recently quoted as saying "knowing the total number of federal government staff, like somebody asked, is one of the challenges we have today. To tell you the number that we pay today, may be you'll have to go to the Budget Office to extract that from the documents that can fill the room. But by the quantum, it is more than N800billion that we pay as salaries per annum, looking at the budget estimates". In view of this problem, the Federal Government has therefore commenced the process of capturing the biometric data of staff under its employment, with the purpose of eliminating ghost workers and ensuring prompt payment of salaries.

Biometrics refers to methods for uniquely recognizing humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioral traits. In particular, biometrics is used as a form of identity access management and access control. Whilst its use has proved to be successful, it is worth pointing out that the system itself is not infallible. As a matter of fact, the so called biometric system would have to be operated by human. What therefore makes the A-G to think that corrupt elements within the public service wouldn’t find a way to circumvent the system? The introduction of the biometric system alone will not deal with the root cause of the ghost worker syndrome. I wonder if the introduction of the biometric system is an “amnesty” for the perpetrators of employment fraud in the public service. The government cannot just sweep the problem under the carpet by introduction of an IT system. It’s like implementing border control measures to tackle human trafficking but not investigating who the human traffickers are? The question for the Accountant-General therefore is, what efforts are being undertaken to weed out the perpetrators of employment fraud out of the public service?

On the other hand, there is also the need for better accountability within the public service bureaucracy. As an apparatus of government designed to implement the decisions of political leaders, the role of bureaucracy is critical to all areas of the development process. Bureaucratic capacity determines what will get done, when it will get done, and how well it will get done. The importance of the bureaucracy in the development process, therefore makes it unacceptable for any A-G to admit that the civil service does not know the number of employees on its payroll. This admission smacks in the face of accountability and probity. What are the functions of the Human Resources Dept of government Ministries, Departments and Agencies, if they cannot account for the number of their employees? What is the role of the management, if they cannot account for the number of their staff? Assuming the A-G works in the private sector, can he be paying N800bn annually to staff he cannot account for? For the Head of Service and A-G not to know the number of public servants on government payroll is not only outrageous but nonsensical

I remember the public outrage that followed when the Minister for Labour and Productivity publicly admitted that the government does not have any reliable data on the number of unemployed Nigerians. In hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have been. How can we expect a government that cannot confirm the numbers of employees on its payroll, to know how many people are unemployed in a population of 120 million? And this is the same Minister that told us recently that the government will declare a “state of emergency” in the job sector. Declare state of emergency for how many? What a joke!

Whilst the biometric initiative is commendable -as this will help the plug the wastage in the public sector - more is needed to sanitise the public sector. The civil service itself needs a serious overhaul. It needs to rid itself of corrupt officers. I believe it is time the top echelon of the public service is injected with fresh blood. We need a modern public service that is devoid of “professional bureaucrats”.

Whatever mechanism being introduced to tackle the problem of ghost workers, the key question are , who are the perpetrators of this fraud? what are the efforts undertaken to weed these rogue elements out of the public service? Until the perpetrators of this fraud are fingered and prosecuted, the biometric system will only achieve very little in tackling this menace.