The government has frozen the recruitment of new staff at central and local governments, pending the completion of the ongoing merger of its agencies and departments.

The moratorium applies to 23 ministries, four service commissions, 72 agencies and departments not affected by the merger, and 148 local governments, 137 districts and 11 cities, including Kampala.

The government expects the proposed changes, decisions on which are made now and then, to save 1 trillion shillings annually. The changes are officially called Rationalisation of Government and Public Expenditure (RAPEX).

In a circular dated June 21 to all permanent secretaries, executive directors of parastatals, secretaries of commissions, chief administrative officers and municipal secretaries, Mrs Catherine Bitarakwate, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Public Services, noted that the freeze on recruitment is aimed at “retaining and absorbing as much staff as possible” from the merged entities.

“The Ministry of Public Services is aware that the structures of public institutions are currently filled to an average of 68 percent, which indicates that there are vacancies in which the affected staff can be accommodated within the framework of the Rationalization of the Government and Public Expenditure,” wrote the PS.

She added: “It is important to note that the government does not intend to lose the experience, knowledge and expertise of the staff of the relevant ministries and agencies.”

Ms Bitarakwate noted that the freeze, however, does not affect ongoing recruitment and that “filling critical vacancies” outside RAPEX “will be managed on a case-by-case basis after consultation” with her ministry.

“Filling vacancies during this period will only take place to support staff of the agencies affected by RAPEX.”

The circular came a day after Ms Bitarakwate wrote a letter to 22 heads of parastatals and agencies on June 20, instructing them “not to hire new staff” and only renew contracts expiring until December 30, 2024, in consultation with her ministry and the Attorney General’s office.

The directive applied to agencies that Parliament recently decided to maintain as semi-autonomous institutions, and to 16 others whose fate has yet to be determined.

Legislators have retained seven parastatal organisations in separate votes since late February, including the big budget holder Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA), National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U), the Dairy Development Authority (DDA), Cotton Development Organisation (CDO), National Forestry Authority (NFA), Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) and National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADs).

So far, nineteen agencies and departments have been merged, including the Agricultural Chemicals Board, the Uganda Trypanosomiasis Control Board, the Uganda National Meteorological Authority, the National Physical Planning Board and the National Population Board.

ICT Minister Dr Chris Baryomunsi, government spokesperson, told this newspaper last week that Cabinet had rejected the retention of the seven parastatal companies and ordered that the repeal bills that address the concerns of MPs be reintroduced to Parliament.

According to Ms Bitarakwate’s letter, only 32 percent of government positions are unfilled. This figure contradicts the findings of the latest report of the Accountant General (AG) for the financial year ending June 2023.

The report, published in December last year and submitted to parliament in January, found that 60,847 of the 133,670 approved positions in 75 interior ministries and 167 local governments have been vacant for more than two years.

Local government data shows that Uganda has 135 districts and 11 towns, making a total of 146. We were unable to determine how many local governments have registered the accountants.

Outgoing Attorney General John Muwanga noted that the staff shortage was negatively impacting service delivery as it “leads to reduced efficiency… increased workload for existing staff (and) the delivery of quality services”.

The report indicated that it is in the health and education sectors that the shortage of staff is most felt. Other entities hampered by staff shortages include the Office of the President and the ICT Ministry.

“Existing human resource management practices and measures are inadequate to facilitate the delivery of quality health care services by health professionals in specialized, national and regional public referral health care facilities in Uganda,” the auditors noted.

Mr Phillip Asavia, spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Services, told this newspaper last night that they have carried out a new (re)validation of all government employees together with the Attorney General.

A final report is still expected from the validation that was completed last week.

“Yes, the AG did the validation but many employees were not recorded for one reason or another. Some were sick so they did not show up for the validation exercise, others had missing documents and some were new on the job,” Mr Asavia said.

He added: “From what the AG has submitted, many (employees) have been removed from the payroll and yet they are government employees. So the ministry (of public service) which is working with the AG had to do another exercise… It is the report of that exercise that will show us the number of employees.”

However, the AG’s reports over the past 10 years show that there are around 60,000 vacancies in both central and local government. This is the result of the Ministry of Finance’s advice to impose a freeze on vacancies, citing high wage costs as the reason.

Officials are investigating reports of bottlenecks in government personnel management as more and more employees who are due to retire are having to change their date of birth to lower their age.

The plan to merge government agencies was first considered in 2018. Consequently, the Ministry of Public Services recommended to the Cabinet that of the 157 agencies assessed, 80 should be retained as semi-autonomous agencies, 33 agencies should integrate their mandate and functions into their parent ministries, and 35 agencies should be consolidated or merged into 19 entities.

In 2022, the cabinet gave the green light and the Rural Electrification Agency (REA), which was again part of the Ministry of Energy, became the guinea pig.

Several stakeholders, including Parliament, strongly warned against the merger, but an ad hoc parliamentary committee gave the merger proposal the green light in its February 2022 report.

The reason? Duplicate mandates, functional ambiguities reflecting a mix of policy, regulation and implementation, unharmonised legal frameworks within which some agencies operate, and bloated structures of some agencies that are not aligned with their mandates.

In addition to the offices of the President and Prime Minister, there are 157 government agencies and 22 ministries.