I remember talking to a colleague of mine at university back in South Africa about my possible moves after I graduate. He asked me the question “state or private?” in other words would I work for the government or would I head out towards the private sector? This question baffled me as I could not ever imagine myself being a civil servant. As a Kenyan, the things that come to mind when I think of the civil service are corruption, bad suits and glaring inefficiency. Why would I want to be a part of that? The notion was preposterous.

From this, I was therefore very surprised to find that the government wage bill as a percentage of both GDP and government expenditures are very high compared to both our East African neighbours and the East Asian Tiger economies, the latter ever so important because we hope to become a middle income country by 2030.

Now on to the data available so as to get a clear picture of what is going on in Kenya. The best way that one can compare the wage bills in different countries and regions is to standardise the data by either measuring the wage bill as a percentage of GDP or expenditure. In Kenya, the government wage bill as a percentage of GDP is approximately 8.4%. As a percentage of total expenditure, this is about 31%. This statistics are ever more glaring when one considers that transfers to universities and the military are not included in the wages that the government reports. In middle income countries, the wages are 6.0% and 22.1% percent of GDP and expenditures respectively. In East Asia the wages are 4.6% and 15.1% and in high income countries the wages are 5.9% and 15.6% of GDP and expenditures respectively.

Kenyan civil servants are clearly well paid if one follows the statistics given by the IMF. However are they? If they are, why then do we see droves of civil servants leaving their jobs and opening stalls in the CBD? Why are they all migrating to the private sector after getting their government sponsored education? This is ever more conspicuous when you consider that the number of workers in the civil service has dropped on average by 4%, this according to both the IMF and the World Bank. Clearly then there is a something incongruous between the rising government wage bill and the diminishing civil service.

When we peer through the data further, we see the missing link. There it is raring it’s ugly head, the simple truth that the high ranking civil servants are extremely well compensated with wages that have outpaced inflation. The middle and lower ranking workers are left behind as the rich get richer. The “mbuta” as our prime minister affectionately named them have been lining their pockets at the expense of their subordinates. According to the IMF, the top to minimum ratio is 118:1. This means that the top officials earn 118 times what the lowest earners are earning. This compared to Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana where the ratios are 25:1, 20:1 and 30:1 respectively. This is really a shocking figure. Added to this the top to median ratio is 53:1 meaning that the highest earner makes 53 times the median income in the service. Again compared to Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana with ratios of 7:1, 5:1 and 4:1, the picture becomes pretty clear and even infuriating.

Our pay structures do not reflect productivity but are more so reflections of status in an elitist government. The thousands of university graduates who would join government as cadres and technocrats are not compensated well enough. Their pay does not reflect their productivity and thus the sharpest minds in Kenya will never ever dream of working for their country. The engineers who would have drafted plans to deal with the rising costs of energy are abroad working for big engineering firms, our economists who would have been implementing plans to steer our economy forward are playing the stock exchange and adding little value to the economy. Our lawyers who would be clearing the backlogs of cases pending at the high courts are company secretaries at the big firms.

The government needs to break with an elitist approach to civil service and have productivity based compensation packages. We need to attract our brightest minds to the government if we are ever to dream of having a robust civil service. Hopefully the draft constitution will deal with this through the mooted salaries and remunerations committee. Until then it is distortion galore at the civil service.