By Itoro Bassey
When people hear that the Akwa Ibom State Government is owing arrears of pension and gratuity, the reaction is always quite predictable. They are quick to censure the government and accuse the Governor of insensitivity and neglect. What gets to their mind first is: ‘oh, the Governor has not given money for payment’. The fact is that most of the arrears pre-date Governor Udom Emmanuel. However, his administration has made the most effort to permanently address the systemic challenges that caused the pile up of arrears. One of the main causes of the huge pension arrears which the public has not talked about was the analogue operating system in the civil service.
In the traditional civil service operating system even at the federal level, commencement of payment of pension usually takes effect 12 months after a worker had retired from service. The personnel and systems in the service usually waste a lot of time to capture, document, process and migrate a retiree from the salary payroll to the pensions payroll, laying the foundation for pension liabilities.
This system is changing in the Akwa Ibom State Civil Service. Like many other remarkable institutional and operational reforms undertaken by the State Government under the Udom Emmanuel-led administration, the Civil Service has overhauled the analogue, paper-based payroll system which was fraught with delays and errors and migrated into an Automated Payroll System as part of a system-wide fiscal governance going on in the state.
Technology is gradually changing the ways things are done, even in very traditional conservative systems where adoption of innovation is usually very slow and low. The Civil Service in Nigeria is one of the systems that has been identified with late adoption of technological innovation, in some cases they resist, reject and frustrate attempts at innovation adoption even when such innovations have clear potentials of increasing their effectiveness, efficiency and productivity.
The Akwa Ibom State Civil Service is tearing down analogue systems, and replacing them one-by-one with smart digital solutions, and it is using technology to reduce the teething challenge of gratuity and pension liabilities which stood in the region of N40 billion. The Emmanuel-led administration inherited a huge liability in gratuity and pension arrears. In 2017, he approved and released funds for payment of 10 years backlog of arrears owed the unified local government workers. Some of these liabilities were outstanding because the processing system was slow.
The payroll system is now automated. One significant change the automation has brought to the service is that it has reduced the hassle of manual migration of workers from salary payroll to the pensions payroll. The migration is automatic. Once a worker gets to his or her last month in the service, the system automatically transmits his or her name into the pensions payroll and he or she begins to collect his or her pension by the next month. Before the introduction of this technology, migration of retirees into the pension’s payroll usually took months, sometimes a year. Automation of the payroll system has eliminated the controversial issue of pension arrears. “The system has eliminated the issue of pension arrears. If you retire in March, the next month you are paid your pension”, a document on the achievements of the Head of Civil Service, 2015 – date, states. The backlog of gratuity and pension was suffocating. Complaints on pension arrears by Labour Unions are abating.
The Akwa Ibom State Civil Service has also introduced what is called the ‘Asset Management Investment Solutions. This involves the digitization of human resources records. The project which is ongoing is intended to bring personnel information in the service under one server, create online interconnectivity between MDAs where personnel data can be shared. It will make access and retrieval of personnel file and data easy and seamless. The cases of lost of files and personnel information and the tedious clerical job of carrying personnel files by hand from one establishment to the other will be eliminated. Training of personnel preparatory to the launch of the human resource management and asset management system.
Aside the tech reform, the Emmanuel administration has invested the capacity building of civil servants to improve thier efficiency, retooled their workspace to increase their productivity. There have been training programmes for senior officers on grade level (GL.) 9–17, retreat for permanent secretaries and heads of extra ministerial departments, among others. That notwithstanding, the training and re-training of key and principal operators of Human Resource Management has remained a cardinal objective of the government for enhancing efficiency of the civil service.
Infrastructural development of government offices is also part of the civil service reforms. More office accommodation for staff have been provided for government business to thrive, through the commissioning and use of the state secretariat annex along Udo Udoma Avenue (Dakkada secretariat). And, by the same token, facilities at the Civil Service Training Centre along Uyo/Ikot Ekpene Highway have been given a face lift. The auditorium in the centre has since been completed and put to use, while some classroom blocks and offices have been renovated in the first phase of the projects through the Inter-Ministerial Direct Labour Committee. Also, the street lights at the Idongesit Nkanga Secretariat/Governor’s Office Annex and the Civil Service Training Centre have been installed, together with 3-in-1 smart model solar lights with factory-fitted batteries. Late last year, the state government approved a 14-day paternity leave for male civil servants in the state, as part of the state government’s welfare package. And now, the usual annual leave counts for 30 working days; not calendar days as previously calculated.