Changing the business of bureaucracyAs Nepal transitions into a federal system, it also provides an opportunity to undertake necessary reforms to create an efficient and public service minded administrative structure
Last several months have revealed much about the state of our bureaucracy, the permanent government. While everyone usually blames politicians for being inept—and they are, often our bureaucrats get away by just blaming the politicians. The earthquake has laid bare not just the lack of ability in many instances, but more alarmingly also the general lack of willingness to do the right thing. They no longer adhere to the principle of neutral competence—meaning they are expected to tell the ministers what is, rather than what the ministers want to hear—thus guarding against political overreach on administrative work. All of the decision the politicians make violating basic tenet of rule of law, civil servants have the ability to stop, if they so choose.
While it would be unfair to box all of them in the same bracket, anecdotes from non-state actors who work closely with the government reveal a shocking picture. And that has translated into a growing public cynicism.
On Nov 20, Education Minister Giriraj Mani Pokharel, flanked by nearly a dozen joint secretaries of his ministry, organised a public hearing in Dilli Bazaar’s Kanya School to unveil an 18-point road map to reform the education sector. While Pokharel was praised for taking proactive steps and trying to communicate his plans to the stakeholders and the public, one participant, a teacher, made an interest remark. “Your programmes are excellent, Mister Minister, but beware of the people that surround you,” the participant said pointing at the joint secretaries. “These are the very people that will make you fail.”
The difficulty the National Reconstruction Authority is facing in deputing senior officials to fill its ranks further illustrates the bubble our permanent government dwells in.
Bureaucratic inefficiency and inaction stems both from structural and cultural factors. Structurally, Nepal’s generalised multipurpose bureaucracy is not geared for dealing with today’s complex challenges of governance. Culturally, the bureaucrats see themselves as a class apart, hence the self-centred hubris often comes in the way of true public service.
As Nepal transitions into a federal system, it also provides an opportunity to undertake necessary reforms to create an efficient and public service minded administrative structure. The initiatives undertaken by other governments around the world should offer some food for thought.
The incoming Labour government in New Zealand in 1984 took a series of steps to get a handle on the perceived inefficiency of the public sector. These included the appointment of heads of departments on five-year terms on a basis of clear annual performance goals. These department heads were also given greater authority and discretion. The government also made use of extensive competitive contracting—with public services outsourced to private and community organisations. The dismantling of the multi-purpose integrated bureaucracy to the creation of specialised smaller agencies was also of significant importance. Totally segregated specialised agencies create their own risks of isolation and fragmentation of public service. So a degree of integration was later ensured. Ministries and departments were required to produce an annual and a multi-year plan of action to deliver on the broader goals of the government.
In their book Understanding American Government, Susan Welch, John Gruhl, John Comer, Susan Rigdon shed light on the evolution of American civil service and steps taken by the Carter Administration is of particular relevance to us.
Jimmy Carter, during his 1976 run for the Presidency, had made the reform of the civil service a central issue. The subsequent Civil Service Act of 1978 sought to modernise the hiring system to make it more competitive with private sector practices. The first thing the Carter Administration did was to dismantle the Civil Service Commission and instead delegate its functions to specialised agencies—with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) responsible for managing and maintaining the overall merit system in the civil service. The 1978 Act gave managers authority to fire incompetent subordinates. Another important reform
undertaken by the Carter Administration was the creation of the Senior Executive Service (SES) to fill the senior management positions in the executive branch of the civil service. SES has the provision of drawing in both career civil servants and political appointees. Unlike other appointments, they are not limited to one agency but move from agency to agency “carrying their ranks.” They are also paid on the basis of their performance, including bonuses.
Nepal certainly needs specialised agencies with their own competitive hiring authority instead of the current multipurpose bureaucracy. This will take away the problems of frequent transfers and create a more competent government personnel pool. At the senior level, Nepal can undertake a mixed system based on the New Zealand and American model—along the lines of Senior Executive Service with competitive hiring, where both current government employees and non-government employees can apply. A similar recommendation was made by the Asian Development Bank funded study in 2000. It suggested the formation of a Senior Civil Service Group. The study also recommended performance linked pay and bonuses.
There are plenty of good suggestions out there on how to reform Nepal’s civil service. But implementing these reforms requires political will and cooperation from bureaucrats. Since we are in the process of phasing in a federal structure, which among other things requires major reforms in the civil service, timing is right to undertake a structural change that can bring about a new performance-driven work culture in the civil service. For that to happen, an honest and informed debate is a must.