Psychology of fear forced bureaucrats to seek political protectionOver the last 25 years, Nepal’s administrative efficiency has been on a downward spiral.
Over the last 25 years, Nepal’s administrative efficiency has been on a downward spiral. This has affected governance at all levels—ushering in an era of impunity for politicians and bureaucrats.
With each successive government, the bar on governance gets further lowered. Against this background, John Narayan Parajuli and Kamal Dev Bhattarai spoke to former Chief Election Commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel about the decline in administrative efficiency, politicisation of the bureaucracy, the functioning of the Prime Minister’s Office and pre-emptive role of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Pokharel had a long career as a public servant.
There is a broad narrative that after 1990 the country’s bureaucracy and overall administrative effectiveness have been on a downward slide, which led to bad governance. What is your take on this?
The political developments after 1990 had raised public expectations; however, due to institutional deficiencies, lack of proper structures and political instability, the government has not been able to deliver. After 1990, the progress in the initial two to three years was very positive, but the snap elections of 1994 brought about a series of misfortune in all sectors, including bureaucracy and politics. That was the beginning of the reversal of all things positive.
Who is responsible for this?
Rather than finding someone to pin the blame on, it is important to analyse how we got here. Drastic political changes within short intervals are one of the major reasons behind the bureaucratic ineffectiveness. If you observe closely, in every ten years after 1990, there has been a political change in Nepal. And as these political changes were taking place quickly, the institutions could not keep pace with them. Neither were there mechanisms to manage these changes, nor was there an attitude, vision and skills among the leaders to constructively cope with the aftermath of these changes.
There is growing concern that politicisation of bureaucracy has undermined an effective governance system. There are claims that the politicians did not let bureaucrats perform and vice versa. What is your opinion?
The political parties had not predicted that there would be such radical political changes after 1990, and thus, were not prepared to make the required arrangements. After 1990, with the end of absolute monarchy and declaration of constitutional democracy, there was a crisis of confidence between the political parties and the bureaucracy. As the bureaucracy was part of the old establishment, the political parties could not fully trust the old guards. And this led to some major reshuffling in the bureaucracy. The political parties promoted bureaucrats of their choice and sidelined the old, mature and experienced bureaucrats. This created a psychology of fear among the bureaucrats and they became submissive. They sought political protection to keep their jobs and get lucrative postings and promotions. Majority of the bureaucrats, in order to keep the political leaders happy and their positions secure, agreed to everything the politicians said. The bureaucracy was not strong enough and became submissive to the political parties for its own vested interests, whereas the political parties started to control the bureaucracy for their personal gains. Instead of guiding the elected ministers, the bureaucrats began to do as they were told. In many cases, they even gave the politicians the impression that they could do whatever pleased them in the ministry. Both of them are at fault. Things became worse when the political parties introduced the trade unions. Since then, the ministers have had the final say in appointing and firing secretaries and other important office holders of the ministries.
Could you expand on how the trade unions stood in the way of an effective governance system?
From the very beginning, I was against this idea. When the political parties announced that they would allow trade unions within the bureaucracy, I had told them they had made a grave mistake. It is not sensible to allow trade unions inside the bureaucracy. In the private sector, it is fine. Even if it sounds anti-democratic, trade unions should not exist in a bureaucracy. Civil service is a permanent institution; it does not belong to a particular party.
This crisis of confidence you pointed out took place 25 years ago. Why have we not learned lessons even now?
There is not much difference between now and then. Earlier the crisis of confidence was between all the political parties and the bureaucracy. But this equation changed. After 1994, it became all about individual parties, their interests and their cronies. So now there is a trend among political parties to appoint individuals who will adhere to the party’s or the minister’s interests rather than the ones who are actually capable. So the political parties have misplaced priorities when it comes to the bureaucracy.
The prime minister is the head of government. How has the Office of the Prime Minister performed over the years?
The country adopted a parliamentary system of government, in which the power lies mainly with the prime minister and collectively with the cabinet. I closely observed the ministers’ council in different eras including the Panchayat. Before 1990, the supreme authority was in the palace and the king’s secretariat was strong and organised. The secretariat would look into matters carefully, responsibly and efficiently. Except in areas where there was a direct interest of the royal family or the king, due process was followed. The five secretariats within the palace held extensive deliberations—weighing pros and cons and taking extreme care before submitting a recommendation to the king. But later, the scenario became such that in every ministry, the key positions were randomly doled out to the supporters of the respective minister regardless of their capability, and decisions were taken at a whim. When the power shifted to Singha Durbar after 1990, parties failed to properly build structures within the Prime Minister’s Office to help the new executive exercise that power effectively. As a result, the Prime Minister’s Office and, by extension, the prime ministers have remained largely ineffective. And over the years, attempts have been made to strengthen the office without much success.
Some argue that the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) has now started taking pre-emptive actions. How do you see the role of the CIAA?
Various institutions are required to run the state smoothly and they receive their mandates accordingly. The role of the CIAA has been altered a bit from how it was envisioned in the Interim Constitution, but its primary job is to investigate corruption cases. It is because of the political parties that the Commission has become proactive in today’s time. Prime ministers and ministers openly state that the CIAA would control corruption—recklessly abandoning their responsibility. Government is responsible for controlling corruption and when it fails to do its job, it creates space for institutions like the CIAA. The fact of the matter is that corruption has been institutionalised in the country—no work gets done without payment. This has created space for the CIAA to intervene.
What then is the way to improve the effectiveness of the bureaucracy and overall governance?
We the people of the country have been immensely disappointed with the governments we have had. We do understand that the government is poor and might not be able to provide everything like free health or employment, but when it comes to basic government duties, we expect it to follow the rules. We should not have to grease the palms of the officials to get things done in government offices. Government mechanisms need to be fair, transparent and clear.
But even the people need to think about how to make our leaders more accountable, not only in politics and government, but also in the private and non-governmental sectors. No one should be above the law.
Unless there is an environment where the rule of law is respected, and where leaders are held accountable for their actions, things will not change. This requires a committed leadership that puts the foot down and says that business will not be as usual; a leadership that does not care much about fulfiling the interests of one’s cronies but rather focuses on the greater good.