Public servants need incentives, not punishmentCurrent proposals in the Federal Civil Service Bill will not lead to better service delivery.
The current discussion on the contents of the proposed Federal Civil Service Bill in the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee of the federal Parliament entails an outdated approach to human resource management in the civil service. The lawmakers seem determined to impose provisions that are intended to discipline and punish public sector employees for mistakes and poor performance rather than nurture and develop them for improving current and future performance. Some of the proposals being advocated by the parliamentary committee include imposing harsher punishments for poor performance and any other acts of indiscipline, introducing performance contracts (and making it mandatory for all gazetted officers), preventing in-service employees from participating in open competitive exams for promotion, cutting down on retirement benefits, and hiring employees in top-level and other important administrative positions from outside the civil service.
If the proposals get legislated, civil servants in Nepal will have to work in an inflexible and highly regimented legal-institutional environment that might effectively kill any possibility of exercising bureaucratic entrepreneurship. The proponents of the proposals have, nonetheless, painstakingly argued that such measures are necessary to force the public-sector employees to concentrate on their current job, improve their performance accountability and reduce the future fiscal burden.
One dimensional approach
The idea of introducing a performance contract for employees is, no doubt, a good practice. But what must not be forgotten is that its effectiveness hinges upon the existence and practise of several other factors. For example, will public administrators or managers be given adequate autonomy over their area of performance in terms of using resources? Will there be strong positive incentives to drive greater performance? Will the managers be encouraged and required to mentor their employees? Will employees be consulted while setting performance goals? Will the targets or goals be measurable? Further, a great deal depends on the evaluation parameters and whether a feedback system will be utilised.
These considerations are fundamental to the establishment of a sound performance management system. A singular one-dimensional obsession with performance contracts without meeting the preconditions for its effectiveness will only add another layer of bureaucracy in the form of additional paperwork without any substantial improvement in employee or organisational performance.
While seeking greater performance accountability from civil servants may be highly desirable, other seemingly draconian measures, such as reducing retirement benefits, barring employees from taking open competitive exams for promotion and filling up top administrative positions from outside the civil service, are solely and maliciously intended to deprive civil servants of their legitimate ambitions that would provide positive motivation. Such negative proposals defy logic and are beyond the comprehension of a sane and educated mind.
Another proposal being considered advocates for the punishment of supervisors who fail to punish their poor-performing employees. This provision militates against the modern idea that places a premium on managers who have demonstrated abilities to coach and mentor their employees—including the poor performers—for better performance in the future. The extremely negative approach to civil service management currently being advocated in Nepal is anachronistic and does not sit well within the context of human resource management in the 21st century.
The negative approach is premised on the false assumption that civil servants always attempt to avoid work and procrastinate. The reality is that most employees enjoy work and only need some positive reinforcements to propel them to perform better. The policymakers also seem oblivious of the fact that such an approach to public-sector human resource management will damage the attractiveness of the civil or public service. The damage will likely manifest itself in two key areas. First, an unattractive civil service in terms of working conditions, employee benefits and career-development prospects will discourage talented young university graduates from pursuing civil service as a career. Second, it will demoralise and demotivate current employees, making it increasingly difficult to retain the high-performing ones. As a result, the promise of creating an efficient and effective civil service by recruiting and retaining the brightest employees will remain a far cry.
Disciplinary measures are, of course, required. But they must be adequately counterbalanced by developmental or motivational provisions. Only then will the civil service reclaim its charm and glory. The policymakers should keep in mind that it is only the best people working as civil servants who can create a high performing public service. And to attract and retain the best employees, the proposed civil service system must rest on the principles and practices of positive and effective human resource management which is built upon the ideals of political neutrality and non-interference. Moreover, a strong performance culture predicated on positive forces of motivation that include greater rewards and benefits, a clear and predictable career development path, a fast-track promotion route for the deserving, and continuous employee development is necessary. The notion of building inward and upward accountability within the organisation with stricter disciplinary measures is a thing of the past. The present need is to attract, nurture and develop talented individuals by adopting a more positive and flexible approach.
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