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Auditor-General in part-time study brawl

LEKHETHO NTSUKUNYANE

Over 20 employees in Office of the Auditor-General have approached parliament’s portfolio committee on Economic and Development Cluster, accusing their boss of denying them eight-week study leave, arguably mandatory to public servants on part-time training.

The disgruntled government auditors want the National Assembly to intervene in their lingering dispute with Auditor-General Lucy Liphafa over the two-month annual study leave, better known in the civil service as ‘Block Release’.

Block Release is enforced by the Lesotho Human Resource Policy Manual of 2007.

It is an eight-week study leave reserved for public servants taking part-time training per their year of study, which they usually use to prepare and sit for examinations without tapping into their ordinary annual leave days from work.

But Liphafa is purported to be using a “secretive cabinet directive” of May 31, 2011, as her defence not to authorise the block release for the government auditors.

The MNN Center for Investigative Journalism learned of an intensified tension at the Office of the Auditor-General following rigorous attempts by the Ministry of Public Service Principal Secretary Tšeliso Lesenya to solve the matter but to no lasting solution.

Even with the involvement of Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka, the dispute continues to linger.

The aggrieved auditors had also sought intervention of the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee in October last year, but say there was no response until they resorted to the Economic and Development Cluster last week.

In the letter dated February 5, and addressed to the Economic and Development Cluster, the auditors noted on July 25, 2018, they wrote a grievance letter to Lesenya about “non-compliance” by Liphafa to authorise their block release, “as sanctioned by law”.

They said the PS did respond to their grievance, detailing steps of how the block release is issued and giving advice to Office of the Auditor-General.

“We are very sad to tell you that the OAG (Office of the Auditor-General) still deny us Block Release. An example is that, in January 2019 the OAG denied one officer who is writing the examinations on February 8 Block Release,” they noted.

So intense are relations between the aggrieved auditors and the OAG management that the former allege they are side-lined from some work-related activities since the block release scuffle.

“We would also like your office to further take note that, we have been excluded from the workshop that has included everyone working in Financial Audits. We feel this is malice/malpractice because if either seniority, qualifications or any other fair criteria was used, we could have been selected to attend such a workshop,” they told the committee.

They said they felt that the Auditor-General “is directly or indirectly violating the Constitution of Lesotho, section 70; power to make laws, read together with Public Service Act of 2005, section 10; Powers of the Minister”.

They pleaded for an “objective and independent intervention” of the committee.

Liphafa, on Wednesday this week, told the Center she was not aware of the grievance letter the auditors submitted before the committee.

She, however, admits knowing about the complaint from the workers but argues she has not denied anyone the block release.

“What happened is that the said workers have refused to follow proper steps in order for them to qualify for block release. There are steps involved, but they chose to undermine the procedure even after they were given advice by the PS in the Ministry of Public Service (Lesenya),” said the Auditor-General.

Liphafa accuse the aggrieved auditors of not being cooperative with her. She said she felt they were undermining her authority, citing they wrote to Lesenya before the matter was brought to her attention.

“I knew about the grievance from a correspondence I received from the PS. What I learned was that they had submitted their grievance to the OAG management, and while the issue was being discussed between the Assistant Auditor-Generals, before it could be discussed with the Deputy Auditor-General and myself, they took their grievance to the ministry,” Liphafa charged.

The Auditor-General also argued the block release, although provided for by the Lesotho Human Resource Policy Manual of 2007, it was discretionary by relevant heads of departments.

“Every worker on part-time training has his or her block release treated differently from the other, depending on merits. Some of the workers are given 12 days for their exams, while others are given just on-day; some maybe repeating one program and need just one-day to sit for exam. We cannot give eight weeks to such a person,” said.

Asked about the “secretive cabinet directive” which she allegedly used in defence to deny the auditors block release, Liphafa confirmed there was a “cabinet decision” of 2011, “which directs that public servants on part-time training should no longer be afforded study leaves, but they should use their ordinary leave days to attend their examinations”.

That cabinet decision, she said, was not secretive to the auditors, “because I showed it to them, individually. We read it together. I even told them doors to my office were open anytime should they feel like they didn’t understand what that document was talking about. They never came, but all I hear every time is that they are not satisfied”.

But even with her explanation above, Liphafa insisted she had not denied the auditors block release. She also dismissed a claim by the aggrieved auditors that they were being side-lined.  

The Centre has learnt that the whole block release fracas at the OAG started around 2012, but took unprecedented levels in mid-2018.

On July 25 last year, 26 auditors signed a grievance letter addressed to Lesenya. It partly reads:

“We, officers engaged in part-time training, are denied block release as stipulated in Lesotho Human Resource Policy Manual of 2007, 6.3 Formal Training and Development. We are only allowed to leave on the day of examination or otherwise use our annual leave days.

“Consultative meetings between officers and OAG through the Human Resource Office and Assistant Auditor-General – Research and Development have taken place but to no avail.

“We feel that the OAG has been and is continuously, and wrongfully so, denying us the block release entitled to all civil servants taking part-time training”.

They requested for “urgent assistance and response” from Lesenya, and the letter was copied to Auditor-General, Deputy Auditor-General, Human Resource Officer and other senior officers in the OAG.

The PS responded on November 17, saying: “Kindly note that upon receipt of your grievance, the Ministry of Public Service afforded itself an opportunity to solicit some information from the Office of the Auditor-General and to hear the position of the same office on the matter so that it could deal with it as objectively as possible.

“We learn that at the time you approached the ministry, discussions were still in progress between yourselves and the relevant offices in the OAG with regard to modalities for managing part-time study, specifically the duration of block release in an instance where the institute has not provided a schedule for block release or in instances where time-off-duty is requested for preparation for examinations”.

Lesenya advised them to  “reconvene with the relevant offices in the OAG to resolve the matter to finality, considering each officer’s case on its merits, noting the wide range of training programmes officers have embarked upon, hence demands per programme. You are invited to note that initiation of each form of training and development available for public officers follows a specific process”.

In particular, the PS advised that in order for the public officer to embark on part-time training the following process steps must be followed:

•              The officer notifies line manager of the intent to study part-time;

•              The officer is accommodated in the training plan;

•              The officer provides proof of registration;

•              Both the officer and the line manager agree on the block release schedule.

Lesenya, therefore, said it followed that “there needs to be a mutual agreement between management and yourselves on the modalities for managing block release…”

But even after this, the auditors sought further intervention of Mphaka.

In a letter dated November 20, they told the Government Secretary (GS) that consultative meetings between them, OAG and the ministry’s Director and Managers from Training and Development department, as well as Lesenya, “have taken place but to no avail”.

They told Mphaka that the OAG management insisted “in using the secretive cabinet directive dated 31 May 2011, which does not apply in all other government ministries, departments, entities and agencies”.

They said they felt that Liphafa was “continuously and wrongfully so, denying us the block release entitled to all civil servants taking part-time training by effecting that cabinet directive”.

They added their thinking was that offices like OAG should set the tone in compliance, “which will then flow to all other government ministries, departments, entities and agencies”.

They said they confirmed in their meeting with the ministry’s officials that the PS had no idea about the cabinet directive that the Auditor-General referred to.

“It is also our belief that OAG must have skilled and knowledgeable officers who can perform current and future jobs to acceptable standards hence we took the courses in line with our jobs.”

They said the decision to approach the GS was necessitated by “the fact that this matter has dragged for a long time, which has resulted in one officer withdrawing from writing the December examinations, other officer notifying the OAG that they will be on block release in line with the policy as they will be preparing for the examinations, while others have totally quit”.

They argued not only had the cabinet directive made them suffer, “but also created inconsistency in the application of procedures within the civil service”.

Meanwhile, the Centre saw two copies of a savingram correspondence between Lesenya and Liphafa in August last year.

Lesenya, on August 2, told Liphafa the ministry was in receipt of a grievance letter from the auditors, “who claim to have been denied block release as per the training policy”.

The PS said he referred the matter to the OAG “to afford it an opportunity to provide an account of the position regarding this matter”.

But further, Lesenya noted in order to deal with the grievance objectively, the OAG was requested to provide the ministry with the information pertaining to; the individual requests to study part-time, schedule for block release, names and employment numbers, designations, the programs of study, year of study and the departments.

On August 27, Liphafa responded noting first that she had received the savingram late, on August 24: “I feel bound to acknowledge receipt at this late date…”

Liphafa promised to provide “an account of the position regarding the topic above as soon as the Human Resource Officer has compiled the information you need to deal with the grievance objectively”.

However, the Auditor-General made the PS aware that “neither my deputy nor I have been given opportunity to deal with this matter anyhow. Rest assured that the OAG has never denied any officer on training block release where it exists”.

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