Development groups bemoan lack of details; draft guide hints at complexity
THE government is set to roll out a revamped compensation programme for civil servants on Thursday, officials said this week, amid lingering questions about how it will work and how programmes in a range of sectors might be affected.
Paul Pidou, deputy secretary general of the Council for Administrative Reform, said the new programme, known as Priority Operating Costs (POC), will take effect on July 1, and that council officials met with development partners and Health Ministry officials on Tuesday to discuss it.
“We discussed with health partners and representatives from the Ministry of Health to raise issues and concerns in the new programme, POC,” he said Tuesday.
Many development organisations that use civil servants in key projects have voiced concern about the pending changes since last December, when the government announced plans to terminate existing salary-supplement schemes.
Donor funds have long been used to top up the often-meager pay civil servants receive, and the organisations worried that an abrupt cutoff could prompt civil servants to supplement their incomes elsewhere, thereby hampering the delivery of key services, particularly in the health and
In justifying the December decision, officials argued that salary supplements – originally conceived as a merit-based incentive programme among civil servants – could instead become an obstacle to wider civil-service reforms.
Nevertheless, the government agreed to a six-month interim period beginning January 1 in which some supplements would be permitted before the new scheme took effect.
Observers say that few details about the new scheme have been provided during the interim period. Paul Pidou said Tuesday that he was unable to answer questions about it.
‘More complex than we all hoped’
A draft copy of an implementation guide for POC, dated June 21 and seen by the Post on Tuesday, has some observers worried the new scheme might be less effective than the old one.
According to the draft guide, each individual “POC scheme” would require its own director, as well as approval from four separate parties: the government ministry or institution that employs the civil servant, the development partner, the Council for Administrative Reform and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
Such arrangements could complicate efforts to deliver money to civil servants, said one source familiar with the draft guide.
“The whole scheme is going to be more complex than we all hoped for,” said the source, who asked not to be named because the topic was considered sensitive.
“It’s going to be a time-consuming exercise.”
Just as concerning are the POC payment levels, which the source said might be too low.
“National level” technical and support staff members are to receive between 504,000 and 756,000 riels per month, roughly US$126 to $189.
“Sub-national/public service delivery” technical and support workers, meanwhile, are to receive between $52 and $73, according to the draft guide.
Though the document does not define either category, it is believed that the “sub-national” category includes staff members at facilities such as rural health centres, where retention is a significant issue, said the source.
“It’s going to cause major, major challenges keeping higher-skilled and thus higher-paid staff,” the source said.
The draft guide defines priority operating costs not as salary supplements, but as “lump-sum payments to public servants who are selected to work in the framework of development cooperation”.
Some observers say the biggest problem at the moment is that so little information exists about the new POC scheme.
The situation has left NGOs that provided supplements under the old system wondering whether the payments will be allowed to continue.
IF YOU DON’T PAY STAFF A ... LIVING WAGE FOR THE SERVICE THEY DELIVER, THEN THEY WILL NOT DELIVER THAT SERVICE.
“I have not received any documentation that says what we are and are not allowed to do,” said Sharon Wilkinson, country director for the NGO CARE Cambodia.
“What I don’t want to see are people who need services not getting them.”
Concern is particularly acute among civil servants themselves, Wilkinson added.
“What I am hearing at the field level is that people don’t understand it. There is a lot of work still to be done around the communication of what POC means in terms of individual income,” she said.
“At the moment there is still confusion.”
The uncertainty has already affected some health programmes.
Within days, the Health Ministry is expected to launch a methadone programme for heroin users supported by the World Health Organisation.
Graham Shaw, the WHO’s technical officer on drug use and the project’s architect, said staff members who administer the programme will not be given extra payments for the time being because the project’s proponents are unwilling to offer supplements without governmental approval.
“Until we get a final position from the government, it’s difficult to make these decisions,” Shaw said.
As a result, the methadone clinic where the programme is set to be housed will only be open in the morning for the time being, rather than all day, Shaw said.
He added that this was considered necessary to ensure that the drug is administered correctly.
“It’s an absolutely critical issue,” he said.
“If you don’t pay staff a basic living wage for the service they deliver, then they will not deliver that service.”
Despite the lingering questions, the WHO is supportive of the POC scheme, said the organisation’s country representative, Pieter van Maaren.
“We would like to draw one line and agree with the harmonisation of such support mechanisms,” he said.
“In that sense, the WHO is fully aligned with the partners and supports the government.”
Observers will have to wait until after the programme is implemented before deciding whether it is a success, van Maaren said.
“Time will tell. The intention is to make it a better mechanism than what was in place before,” he said.
“We have no reason to believe that this mechanism is going to fail.”