Where is the public administration?Nepali administrators, except a few, engage more in self-serving acts than public service.
Public administration, being an integral part of the governance system, has quite often been a subject of public criticism in Nepal. The complaints are associated with almost all aspects of the functioning of the government, ranging from design and execution of development policies and programmes to the application of laws, delivery of public services and subordination to political masters. Many of these criticisms are justifiable because of the very nature of the administration, which does not change irrespective of the changes in its political leadership. On the other hand, many criticisms also do not match the ground reality of public administrators because of their institutional limitations to work under their political bosses. They are not the ultimate decision-makers.
One landmark shift in Nepal’s public administration is that it started operating in a federalised form in line with the 2015 Constitution. With the restructuring of the state into three spheres as federal, provincial and local, the unitary administrative setup too has been restructured with the handover of some 8,000 centrally run offices to the seven provincial and 753 local governments. A number of new pieces of legislation related to operation of local levels, inter-governmental financial management, adjustment of civil servants and intergovernmental coordination have been introduced. Three cycles of federalised form of annual programming and budgeting have been completed at all levels of government.
Far from satisfactory
However, a critical review of the current public administration of Nepal from four perspectives—capability, presence during crises, quality and public image—gives only a dim and mixed picture. Its present capabilities in terms of designing policies, laws and development programmes, and executing them are far from satisfactory. Most public policies, laws and development programmes/projects are allegedly influenced more by vested interest groups than the interest of needy common citizens. Even laws essential to operate the daily administration like the Federal Civil Service Act remain to be finalised. Likewise, the execution of recently issued laws related to federal and provincial police is stalled. Many of the 339 laws that existed at the time of the promulgation of the new constitution remain to be updated. Like in previous years, only some 40 percent of the federal development budget could be spent in the last fiscal year. Spending was only 23 percent at the provincial level in the first nine months of the same year.
At the delivery level—with the exception of a few services offered by certain public offices due to the service attitude of the concerned public staff rather than for any systemic reason—the common citizens’ access to public services continues to be limited. Access has mostly been a privilege of the elite who have informal connections with public officials or those who can afford to pay extra to the agents working around the public offices. Many frontline public offices designed for delivery of services have been notoriously dysfunctional due to rampant corruption, inefficiency and sluggishness. As one study shows, there are as many as six layers of middle persons between producers and consumers causing disrupted delivery and higher price of products at the cost of the real producers (including farmers) and ultimate consumers. How the farmers are deprived, almost every year, of having fertilisers supplied on time through government depots is just one example.
The poor administrative capacity to deal with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic can be rationalised to some extent, given the nature of the problem and the lack of experience and technical infrastructure; but continued lapses in having a well-conceived preparedness plan and gaining people’s confidence through the provision of adequate health services and facilities cannot be justified.
There are plenty of examples of misuse and leakage of state resources for luxury purposes of those in power. The administration has lost its credibility more by dishonesty than inefficiency because of its alleged involvement and subordination to corrupt political leaders and the business mafia in procuring health equipment and medicines of low quality and higher prices from their most favoured suppliers having notorious track records. Nepal is being elevated to the status of nations having the lowest recovery rate with increased virus infections in South Asia, whereas its responsible public officials are allegedly making the pandemic an opportunity to earn money at the cost of unexplainable sufferings of the common people. This is a much scarier situation than the pandemic itself.
Nepali administrators, except a few, are hardly practising and promoting basic administrative values like efficiency, service orientation, rule orientation, fairness, responsiveness, accountability and integrity. They are becoming a group of privileged elites who engage more in self-serving acts than public service. Though the administration has progressed to becoming an increasingly inclusive body with the hiring of people from some socially excluded groups, its inclusiveness remains to be well reflected in design and delivery of public services too.
Poor public perception
Whatever Nepal’s public administration has been able to perform so far, the people’s perception of how it exists and performs has long been very poor, though this claim might undermine many frontline public staff and those at the policy level who are sincerely devoted to serving the purpose of administration with competency, dedication and integrity. The image of public administrators is being painted by the corrupt and unethical administrative practices of a few administrators and their illicit subordination to corrupt politicians and the business mafia. For the common citizens, the administration exists only in the form of policies, laws, programmes, projects and words. The auditor general has reported unsettled accounts of public offices amounting to Rs133 billion in the fiscal year 2018-19 alone, increasing the cumulative sum to Rs664 billion.
As the public administration cannot remain aloof from the political system and the exercises and culture that prevail in present-day Nepal, many of the issues raised above need to be addressed both politically and administratively. Unfortunately, both the ruling and opposition political parties tend to be indifferent towards the common people’s interest and wellbeing, and this trend is on the increase as the judicial bodies and other constitutional watchdogs are dominated by political appointees. This nation is doomed to failure due to bad governance if public administrators too do not show courage to behave professionally and ethically by complying with the basic administrative norms and values they are meant to protect and promote.
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