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Opinions of Monday, 22 December 2014

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is the Chief of Staff on a Spending Spree?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Last week the Finance Committee of Parliament reported that the office of the Chief of Staff at the presidency overspent its allocated annual budget by a whopping amount of Ghc41.4 million. A report by the committee showed that the Chief of Staff’s office spent Ghc48.8 million instead of the Ghc7.4 million allocated to it in the 2014 budget. The report further stated that out of a total of Ghc326.8 million allocated to government machinery for the year 2014, as at September, Ghc203 million, representing 62 percent of the budget had been spent (see, “Chief of Staff’s Office Overspends Budget by Ghc41 million – Report”, Starrfmonline/Ghanaweb, December 17, 2014). The purpose of this article is to analyse the huge budget deficit by the office of the Chief of Staff relative to the austerity measures the government intends to introduce in 2015.

I discuss this subject not under any illusion on the important role and the many demands on the office of the Chief of Staff. I am aware of the key role played by the office in ensuring the existence of effective government machinery from personal experience with two former PNDC Chiefs of Staff (briefly with Major Gbedemah and the late Col Ewa, who replaced him). They both told me not to go to them again with daily demands for financial and material assistance as the then Logistics Officer of a newly created national organisation. The article is therefore not to trivialise either the office or its role in government.

The concern is not the overspent itself but the level of the deficit. In fact, the overall picture of the government machinery expenditure appears to be within budget if as at September 2014, 62 percent of the total budget has been spent. Indeed, according to the report some offices such as those of the Vice-President and the Office for Monitoring and Evaluation under-spent their budgetary allocations, though that in itself is not necessarily good, particularly, the Monitoring and Evaluation Office.

From the figures, the Office of the Chief of Staff had spent nearly seven times (6.59 times) or 659 percent more than what was originally allocated to it. What does this say about Ghana and the government? It means either those who produced the original budget had no clue what was expected of the office or simply, they did not understand financial figures or a budget. If they did, then, it means either those who prepared the original budget deliberately lied or misled Parliament. That is, they intentionally put a small figure for the Office of Chief of Staff and exaggerated the figures for other offices in order to get approval from Parliament and subsequently change the figures for each budget/cost centre in favour of the Office of Chief of Staff. Last but not the least, since the office is directly under the President, his numerous travels could account for this unusually high budget deficit.

Whatever the reasons, the Chief of Staff must explain to the Ghanaian tax payer through Parliament why such huge differences in what his office asked for and was allocated and what he has actually spent. In fact, if the sole purpose of asking for a smaller amount for his office and bigger ones for others in order to secure parliamentary approval and to conduct financial re-engineering or budget virement, then, that is not only deception but could also be fraud. This type of budget virement is not financially prudent because it does not instil financial discipline in any organisation or economy. It shows that the Chief of Staff can spend his budget and grab from others or other budget centres without having to explain himself to the approving authority (Parliament).

Such budget expenditure pattern or virement encourages waste as well as fraud. This is particularly serious for a government that is finding it difficult to meet its statutory financial obligations such as, paying GET, Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assembly Common and NHIS Funds; School Feeding Programme, etc as well as considering introducing austerity measures in 2015. How can the Chief of Staff or the government ask workers who have not been paid their salaries and allowances that there is no money or how can the government tell citizens to make sacrifices by tightening their belts for a better future when the presidency is engaged is such uncontrolled budget expenditure?

The other reason why this matter must be discussed is that, the Chief of Staff is an unelected public official and unlike ministerial appointments by the president, he was not vetted by Parliament. It is therefore unacceptable for him to be supervising such ridiculous budget over-spent. He should be made to account for this extremely high budget deficit and not allowed to get away with it. It is also important for this type of budget virement and deficit to be checked because it could be abused for unconstitutional purposes. For example, the Office of Chief of Staff could be used to launder state funds into party political activities, especially, in an election year to fund party election campaign or presidential campaign activities. Could this be one of the reasons for the huge budget deficit in 2012?

It is unbelievable for President Mahama to claim that he is prepared to suffer the consequences of austerity measures his government has taken to fix the economy, yet his Chief of Staff is engaged in such huge budget overspent (see, “Austerity Measures: I’m prepared to pay the political price – Mahama”, Starrfmonline/Ghanaweb, December 15, 2014.)

It was interesting to note in the report that the Monitoring and Evaluation Office under-spent its allocated budget. Is that a manifestation of where this government’s priority lies as well as an indication of its inability to deliver on its campaign promises? A government serious about delivery should have a very strong and active Monitoring and Evaluation office to ensure that government and ministerial policies are being implemented and delivering expected the expected results in terms of tangible outputs and outcomes. I remember the former head of the unit, now Ambassador Tony Aidoo, complaining about his office being starved of staff and resources. We now know that this was done so that the Chief of Staff could grab the budget allocated to it for his office. It would be in the best interest of President Mahama to ensure that this unit within the presidency is not only properly resourced but also it has qualified and competent staff to monitor and evaluate the work of ministries and agencies under the Executive. The president must hold his Chief of Staff accountable for this huge budget deficit.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge.