‘Impartiality’ in public appointmentsThe obvious resultant pitfalls thereof are mismanagement and unchecked corruption.
One of the key reasons for the perpetuated sorry state of and underperformance by public enterprises, including several academic and other institutions, is blatant political interference in the appointment of their chief executives. The obvious resultant pitfalls thereof are mismanagement and unchecked corruption in them. The government recently appointed Umesh Prasad Thani as managing director of Nepal Oil Corporation, the natural monopoly in the nation's petroleum distribution. The government is alleged to have amended the eligibility criteria in the interest of a particular candidate by adding "practice of engineering" as "countable" experience for the position. Last month, Pradeep Adhikari got appointed as managing director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, who surprised a couple of his seniors vying for the post.
On the face of it, these selection processes appear as if they are impartial. The government of the day, almost from a template, constitutes a selection committee, the committee invites "expression of interest" from interested candidates who are also given the opportunity to compete by presenting their "leadership vision" supposedly to turn around the fate of, invariably, an ill-managed or loss-making enterprise. In reality, however, the candidate intended to be handpicked by the political leadership is predetermined. The selection committees so instituted are strictly instructed not to leave behind the favoured candidate at each stage of the evaluation process. Finally, the very person who, very often than not, would have already struck a pecuniary deal with the ultimate political master ostensibly gets the coveted appointment.
This has been an accepted pattern for decades now, replicated by the government of every political hue. The selection committees themselves are a pure sham because, in the first place, their members themselves are picked according to the vested interest of the person in power. Therefore, the prospect of impartiality in the selection process is compromised at its very outset.
Sadly, the practice of this "pattern" has now extended even to esteemed academic institutions, well beyond the state-owned production or business entities. For example, appointing the vice-chancellor of the Rapti Academy of Health Sciences is now ongoing. A committee headed by Health Minister Birodh Khatiwada has recommended three names—Rishikesh Shrestha, Narayan Thapa and Ramesh Koirala. But it is public knowledge that the final appointment will be determined not based on the merits of the shortlisted candidates but political affiliation by bartering between the Nepali Congress Party heading the coalition government and the CPN (United Socialist) as the coalition partner that heads the Health Ministry.
What went wrong?
The extractive political class has found this practice of creating a camouflage of the selection committee very convenient. They are killing two birds with a single bullet. For publicity and public consumption about the impartiality of the process, these committees prove to be a very effective shield for them. Yet, the political leaders have no difficulty in appointing their henchmen to attractive public positions according to their wishes.
What has also been apparent over the years is that most deserving candidates, in terms of qualification, calibre and integrity, generally do not even bother to submit their initial "expression of interest". First, they know the entire process is just a hoax, and however qualified one maybe, one is unlikely to be selected without political patronage. Second, for people with a reasonable amount of self-respect, participating in the process is humiliating and demeaning to their credentials when far less qualified political clowns, ultimately, are sure to overtake them in getting appointed.
Ideally, the government of the day should have all the right to make such appointments if done in good faith, and the institution's best interest in question. This also means that the government must also be fully accountable for the appointee's performance. This is exactly where politics has failed the country. There is invariably a mala fide intention of appointing underqualified cadres in blatant disregard to the future of the enterprise or institution. And political leaders, to seek protection from public wrath against favouritism, are slipping into the "committee-based selection process" cocoon. It is their indirect confession that they neither intend to be honest nor accountable.
After persistent and widespread criticism of successive governments for handpicking underqualified cadres to head important public institutions, a Public Enterprise Management Board headed by former finance secretary Bimal Wagle was created in 2012. Its twin objectives were to bring this pervasive malpractice of "handpicking" to an end and impartially select professionals to head public enterprises. The board set some ground rules for the evaluation process, and in its initial days, selected about half a dozen chief executives for the public enterprises. But its relative assertiveness soon became a headache for political leaders of all hues. They perceived that the political "prerogative" of distributing these lucrative positions had been suddenly snatched away from them, and the selected "professionals" were more proud of their merits for their appointment and less obliged to politicians. Most importantly, it ended the scope of clandestine pecuniary tradeoffs for the appointment.
For the same reasons, the authority originally bestowed upon the board was gradually withdrawn or infringed upon under different excuses. Neither was the tenure of Chairman Wagle renewed after three years nor was there any incentive for politicians to appoint a new chairman. For years, it was left in limbo and finally scrapped in 2018.
Then, slowly but decisively, the new "selection committee" culture, a separate one for selecting the chief executive in each public entity, crept in; thanks to the connivance of shrewd political bigwigs that effectively killed the institution with the true potential of impartially selecting professionals for the "right positions". It is already too late to put such a flawed practice to an immediate end and bring back the institutions like the Public Enterprise Management Board with more autonomy and credibility and a broad mandate to take charge of all public appointments beyond the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission.