A timely letter from the past

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

What can the government do to mitigate the impact of the loss of hundreds of jobs with the closing of Yazaki Samoa Eds as well as the closing of the cannery factory at the Samoa Tuna Processors in American Samoa?  

Someone posed that question yesterday, in light of these two very sad recent developments during the past week.  I won’t tell you the person who asked except to say he is a highly paid government official who was clearly unhappy at suggestions that the government is duty bound to help.

 “What does the government have to do with the closure of Yazaki?” he screamed over the phone. “Yazaki is a private company that the government has no control over. How can the government be responsible? Can you tell me what the government can do?”

These are interesting questions. They might come across strange coming from public servant but they are very relevant, the sort of questions we must address in terms of moving forward. We say this because there is no denying the fact the next few years will be difficult. But we’ve got to be able to stand strong, stand together and make every little step count.

We are a small nation with a fragile economy that can least afford such sad developments. Which is why we need to pull together, making the most of the little we have.

Which brings us back to the question, what can the government do? Where can it help?

Well, there are a lot ways the government can help. For instance, over the years, we’ve been talking about the need to reduce corruption and eliminate it completely from the government where possible. That is one area. But we’re not going to delve into this area today. That’s a story for another time. 

What’s obviously clear is that the government needs to cut down on it’s spending to allow some of that money to be injected back to help our community. Which reminds me of a letter to the editor we published a few years ago. It touched on one area the government is wasting a lot of money on. We believe the letter is worth reprinting with the idea that now is the time where this really needs to happen. Have another read:

“I would like to raise an issue which I hope to bring to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee and perhaps the Budget Division of the Ministry of Finance in their assessment of these budget submissions. In my view, this is a growing public service problem and more than a year ago, even Cabinet justifiably issued a strongly-worded multi-page directive on this very issue.

One of government’s most crucial policies in the current budget was to eliminate all overseas travel from ministry budgets unless they were FULLY FUNDED by other (usually international) organizations. In practice, the Government is still paying for clothing, transit and incidental allowances from ministry budgets for anyone who is travelling on an official government trip. It should also be noted that the costs of visas, travel permits, official passports and the carriage of travel documents between embassies are also paid for by ministries. This, in my very humble opinion, does not fall under the strict category of a trip being “fully funded”. 

Several ministry C.E.O.s and employees travel from the get-go on July 1 when a financial year starts until the end of that financial year. In fact, there has been no easing up at all of government travel. Every week, Cabinet spends most of its time approving travel submissions from ministries. 

Travel expenses are a sight to behold on June 30 every year – and not in a good way. There are three particular types of allowances paid from ministry budgets: 

•  Clothing allowances are paid once every twelve months ($800 for C.E.O., $600 for A.C.E.O., $400 for the rest) – (currency: Samoan Tala);

•  Incidental allowances ($50 a day for C.E.O., $40 a day for A.C.E.O., $30 a day for the rest) – these daily rates, depending on your level on the organizational structure, are multiplied by the number of days for a meeting or workshop.– (currency: Samoan Tala);

•  Transit allowances are paid out if you are in transit in another country for more than 8 hours. As an example: if you transit in Auckland for more than 8 hours, the transit allowance is $300-plus (New Zealand dollars) and these are converted into Samoan tala and paid from a ministry’s budget. If you stay there for more than two days, that’s $600 New Zealand dollars. This type of allowance is paid out in the currency of the country you are transiting in and consequently, the further away you are from Samoa, the higher this amount goes up in terms of conversion rates. If you are in London for more than 8 hours, that’s several hundred pounds. And if you have an 8-hour transit both on your way to and back from your destination...then that’s some serious duty-free shopping. 

The amounts mentioned above, on their own, do not seem substantial but in a public service where constant travel seems to be the norm, every sene adds up. Our struggling economy does not need this. 

After the First Supplementary Estimates 2009/2010 was approved, the national deficit for the current financial year that was previously estimated at $189m increased to $197m (refer: Parliamentary Paper 2009 – 2010, No. 88). This is an $8m addition to the deficit; the bulk of this increase being directed at reconstruction efforts relating to last year’s tsunami. In light of these dismal figures, why would Government ever place any sort of importance on travelling? I am positive that if we were to go back five financial years, travel expenses of the government (excluding medical emergencies) would run into the millions.

The most important questions we need to ask and the issues we need to look at are these: 

• RELEVANCE TO THE SAMOAN PUBLIC SERVICE: 

How relevant are the contents and substance of these meetings and workshops to a Samoan public servant? Some of them might very well be useful but most certainly not all of them. Do Samoans really need to go to Turkey, India, Belarus or the far-flung corners of Yemen to learn about office administration? NASA’s air-space program? How to be a better manager? To watch cherry blossoms bloom in Japan? 

• RELEVANCE TO JOB DESCRIPTION & PERFORMANCE: 

Of the public servants who are nominated to go on a trip, is anyone in the public service checking the calibre of the people attending and the relevance to their positions? Shouldn’t travel, which is traditionally seen as a “reward”, be linked to outstanding work performance? Is it acceptable to send mere juniors with less than a month’s work contribution to a trip to Canada? Is someone working in an Accounts Division going on a workshop in Italy about forestry? Is anyone in law going on a meeting for economists in Marrakesh? I have yet to hear about a trip being turned down on the grounds of it being irrelevant to the job of the person travelling and to the Ministry itself even when these are so obvious from the outset. The duration of these trainings is also another issue. A two-day course somewhere in the Middle East involves a lot of travelling time.

• INVITATION TO OVERSEAS CONFERENCES/WORKSHOPS: 

I would find it a slap in the face of professionalism if our public servants are actually ‘begging’ for trips from international organizations and I hope that public servants are not ‘hogging’ all the trips from specific organizations by registering themselves as Samoa’s sole point of contact for that organization. Public servants should refrain from getting into the habit of searching all over the internet for courses in faraway places. 

• MONITORING UNIT: 

All official trips are approved by Cabinet (upon advice from the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service Commission, with the Ministry of the Prime Minister collating all information) and sometimes by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade through, what public servants simply call, an ‘STSC approval’. Which one of these ministries should be responsible for checking the type of workshops and meetings in relation to the job and the work experience of the person who has been nominated to go on a trip? Shouldn’t there be a division to ‘monitor’ (and not just financially) this type of activity especially when so much public funds are being used? Which brings me to another question: How many Samoan public servants actually travel in ONE month alone? I think we’d be very surprised at the statistics.

• REPORTS ON OVERSEAS TRAVEL: 

Although there are Cabinet and S.T.S.C. report requirements for official government trips, this obligation is not placed on every travelling public servant. These reports are submitted to either Cabinet or the Staff Training & Scholarships Committee (S.T.S.C.) but what is the purpose when nobody is reading them? Are these reports any useful at all? Did a workshop achieve its objective? For example: Did Ioane (a 55-year-old male) actually learn how to make flower arrangements when he went to Kazakhstan for two weeks? This, of course, is hypothetical. It would be a sad state of affairs indeed if this were actually true. 

 

• STAFF RETENTION: 

What measures are in place to retain employees that a ministry has invested money in to go on an overseas training? In some cases, after sending someone overseas, that person immediately finds a job elsewhere very soon upon return. 

For the Public Accounts Committee, please avoid the trap of falling for lengthy, technical explanations from ministries that will distract you from asking the hard questions during budget assessments. Stick to your guns – if it does not add any intrinsic value to the organization, it’s simply a waste of money. If government were to operate like a profit organization, it would tighten its purse strings considerably. If government was YOUR family business, you need to ask yourself if you would spend your family’s hard-earned money to send your employees all over the world every month. If your answer is NO, then government certainly wouldn’t want to either. We like to throw around transparency and accountability but these have become redundant, over-used terms simply used as gap-fillers in public speeches.

I understand the argument of training our public servants and encouraging them to see things from a global perspective but surely this can be achieved in a more economical way that will not involve flying to Eastern Europe every month. For a supposedly developing country, we seem to be projecting an image that there is a lot of money to burn in our little paradise.

Another personal observation is that I think it is more than just coincidence that there always seems to be some international sports tournament at the same time as the conferences that our public servants attend.

 

RECOMMENDATION: 

Travel sparingly. Only one person needs to go on a trip. In very rare circumstances would ten people from the same ministry need to go to say, Jerusalem to attend the same meeting at the same time. Surely, only one person needs to know how to write and listen to get all that information! If you should so feel inclined to travel, find courses in New Zealand and Australia – they are our neighbours and surely what they find relevant should be of importance to us too. Flight delays due to volcanic ash will definitely not be an issue flying to Christchurch or riding the ferry to Savaii for consultations. Also, unless Samoa is planning on leading World War III, there really is no need to send someone on a one-day workshop about nuclear armament in Liechtenstein!

Writing this will probably not change a single thing (some people may already have planned trips before next year’s budget has even been approved) and will probably only make certain public servants defensive. We cannot deny however that this is a problem and I can only hope that someone with a moral compass can learn to say NO. 

As a personal plea to all the well-seasoned travellers in the public service, please let go of the need to go to London or Singapore or Mexico for the fifth time. Please. Working in the Samoan public service is not a way of fulfilling your dreams of your big O.E. As far as I know, no overseas meeting or workshop has ever been cancelled because a Samoan public servant was unable to show up. 

This is a well-written letter by someone who obviously has a heart for what matters in this country. We could not agree more with the content. Thank you for raising these critical issues. 

Keep in mind that this written a couple of years ago. It would certainly be interesting to see what these figures are now. 

What do you think? Write and share your thoughts with us. 

Have a great Tuesday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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