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Storm over study leave at Auditor-General’s office   

Lekhetho Ntsukunyane

MORE than twenty staffers in the Office of the Auditor-General have approached the Economic and Development parliamentary portfolio committee to intervene in their dispute with their boss, Auditor-General Lucy Liphafa, who they accuse of denying them eight weeks of study leave.

The two months annual study leave, known in the civil service as ‘Block Release’ is provided for in the Lesotho Human Resource Policy Manual of 2007. It enables public servants to take time off from work without eating into their ordinary annual leave days to prepare and sit for examinations which are seen as crucial to their professional development.

The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism has established that the dispute has dragged on despite the involvement of the Ministry of Public Service’s Principal Secretary, Tšeliso Lesenya, and the Government Secretary, Moahloli Mphaka.

The aggrieved auditors also sought intervention of the Selibe Mochoboroane-led Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last October to no avail hence their decision to petition 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 Mr Lesenya replied by detailing the steps they should follow to secure their block release.

“We are very sad to tell you that the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) still denies us block release. An example is that, in January 2019 the OAG denied (study leave) to one officer who is writing the examinations on 8 February.”

The auditors further allege that the tensions over the study leave have escalated to a point where they are being side-lined from other work-related activities.

“We would also like your (Economic and Development committee) office to further take note that we have been excluded from the workshop that included everyone working in the 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.”

The auditors say they feel that the Auditor-General “is directly or indirectly violating the constitution of Lesotho” and they are pleading for an “objective and independent intervention” by the Economic and Development committee.

On her part, Ms Liphafa said although she was aware of the workers’ complaint, it was however, not true that she denied any of them the study leave.

“What happened is that the said workers have refused to follow the proper steps 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 (Lesenya),” Ms Liphafa said.

She further accused the auditors of undermining her authority by writing to Mr Lesenya before engaging her over their grievances.

“I only 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 among the Assistant Auditor-Generals, before it could be discussed with the Deputy Auditor-General and myself, they took their grievances to the ministry,” Liphafa charged.

The OAG management structure comprises of the Auditor-General, her deputy, eight Assistant Auditor-Generals and Principal Auditors.

Ms Liphafa said the granting of the study leave was done at the discretion of the relevant heads of departments, agencies and ministries.

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

She also said that in 2011 cabinet decided that public servants should no longer be given eight-weeks of study leave and they should instead use their ordinary leave days to attend to their examinations.

That cabinet decision, she said, is not a secret to the auditors “because I showed it to them, individually and we read it together”.

“I even told them the doors to my office were open should they feel they don’t understand the document. They never came but all I hear every time is that they are not satisfied,” she added.

The Centre has learnt that on 25 July 2018, 26 auditors signed a grievance letter addressed to Mr Lesenya, stating among other things, that:

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

“Consultative meetings between officers and the 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 Mr Lesenya, and the letter was copied to Auditor-General, Deputy Auditor-General, Human Resource Officer and other senior officers in the OAG.

Mr Lesenya responded on 17 November, 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 the modalities for managing part-time study, specifically the duration of the 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”.

Mr 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 (with a training institution);
  • Both the officer and the line manager agree on the block release schedule.

Mr Lesenya 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 further sought the intervention of Mr Mphaka.

In a letter dated 20 November 2018, they told Mr Mphaka that consultative meetings between them, the OAG and the Public Service 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 on 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 Ms 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 further said that the decision to approach Mr Mphaka 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 2018 examinations…while others have totally quit”.

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