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Lyn Mengich: Tough SRC chair reining in state officers' greed for fat pay - VIDEO

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Lyn Mengich, the chairperson of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC), is a glass-is-half-full person.

And it would be hard to maintain a different attitude if your job involves taming a ballooning public sector wage bill, keeping State employees happy, and reining in the greed for fat perks, especially among Members of Parliament.

Ms Mengich, a human resource and leadership professional, has worked as HR director for Absa and KCB Group, a talent manager for Shell, Smith Kline Beecham, and Unilever as well as a board member at Jamii Bora Bank, Sovereign Group, and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

The University of Nairobi alumnus succeeded Sarah Serem at SRC in September 2018, becoming the commission’s second boss.

Private sector

She says the skills she acquired working in the private sector for 25 years made it easier to make the transition to one of the toughest jobs in Kenya's public service. Her job of setting and reviewing salaries and benefits for State officers comes with challenges and to some critics, compromises.

In two months, Ms Mengich will be marking four years in office. What has she learned about public service?

“Although the commission {SRC} is an independent institution, you must work with other stakeholders. I’ve learned that in the public sector, a lot of collaboration is needed. You cannot deliver alone,” she says.

By the close of the financial year 2018/2019, public sector wage bill was estimated at Sh795 billion. It currently stands at about Sh930 billion, mainly because of pension liability as more employees retire from the civil service and life expectancy increases.

But it is not the wage bill that worries her most. Kenya has a lot of talent and potential, she says, but it does not make the most of that talent.

“I look at our country and see that we got a lot of potential. We have the best talents in the region, and I must say even globally, Kenyans are brilliant. They do a very good job,” she says.

Kenya is ranked at position five in terms of productivity in Africa. Globally, Kenya is much lower, and Ms Mengich believe the country's human resource base should be more productive with such a huge talent.

Bigger cake

“We should not be talking about how big the wage bill if we were more productive. If I may use the analogy of a cake, the bigger the cake you bake, the bigger the share you get. Let's then bake a big cake. Let's be more productive as a nation, and we can achieve more. Kenya should be the leader in Africa, not number five. We can do better,” says Ms Mengich, whose favourite winding-down routine is playing golf and reading books.

“I recently started playing golf. I like it. I also read a lot,” she says. “Currently, I am reading Democracy Kills by Humphrey Hawksley. A very interesting book, I must say.”

In the book, the author delves into how democracy can make things worse rather than better in some societies. That certainly rings a bell in Kenya where politicians clamour for more salaries and allowances in an economy where millions are going hungry and lack quality healthcare.

And that is what Ms Mengich is fighting. In May, for example, the commission scrapped plenary sitting allowances for MPs ahead of the 13th Parliament, a decision that will save the taxpayer at least Sh382.2 million.

She, however, gave the incoming 416 MPs, an enhanced taxable car grant of Sh10 million every five years – translating to about Sh7.55 million, for them to buy a car with an engine capacity not above 3,000cc.

Ms Mengich also fought and won a court battle with MPs over accommodation allowances, managing to recover Sh1.2 billion paid to them four years ago.

The MPs had granted themselves a house allowance of Sh250,000 each and backdated it to 2018 but the court ruled that the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) had encroached on the mandate of SRC.

At her six-floor office at Williamson’s House in Nairobi, she maintains a steely demeanour enforcing austerity in public service remuneration. But that is reserved for the SRC job, she says. At home, she says (laughing) that she adjusts to the different roles she plays in life.

“In the different roles I play, just like any other person, be it a wife, a mother, be it at home, or the chair of SRC, I have to adjust with the environment,” she says.

What might differ between her and another woman or mother, she adds, are the skills she has acquired and her upbringing.

Career advice

Having shattered the glass ceiling on her career path, she has some piece of advice for younger women.

“Take charge of your lives and careers. Yes, there are challenges but face them. Seek advice where need be. Speak out,” she says.

“Do not listen or focus too much on the obstacles. The more you focus on impediments, the more you might think that that is the way life is. Look at the opportunities and how to overcome the challenges,” she says, adding “there are people who will want to pull you down, but at the end of the day, you choose what to listen to and how to act.”

Ms Mengich recalls that when she started her career, there were very few women in leadership positions.

“There were instances where I would be the only woman in a board meeting. But that did not distract me,” she says, adding that things have improved for women.

She cites the constitutional one-third gender rule requiring that not more than two-thirds of appointments in the public sector should be from the same gender as an example of changes that have created opportunities for women.

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