Right person, right jobAs Nepal moves to implement federalism, civil service reform has become crucial
Nepal finally seems to be taking the first step towards the implementation of federalism with the declaration of local elections. Federalism also means reforming the public service sector, which faces crippling challenges. The mutation of relations between Nepal’s political and bureaucratic actors into patrimonial networks exemplifies what the World Bank describes as unhealthy political engagement where ‘adverse political incentives’ often block the design and implementation of favourable policies. Even when good policies are formed, ‘negative behavioural norms’ among bureaucrats prevent their implementation.
Two emblematic cases
Two instances from recent history serve as emblematic cases. The first case concerns the Cabinet’s audacity to appoint a candidate considered fourth in terms of merit as the Inspector General of Police (IGP). The Supreme Court, in response to a writ petition, ordered the government to appoint the IGP based on performance evaluation. Finally, the Cabinet declared the officer ranked second in terms of merit as the IGP of Nepal. Neither was Deputy Inspector General Nawaraj Silwal, considered to be the most eligible candidate, given any reason why he was rejected, nor was Deputy Inspector General Jaya Bahadur Chand, the original appointee, told what to do after his appointment was revoked. In this saga, the absence of transparency and justification of the grounds for selection remain conspicuous.
Another case concerns the recent appointment of ambassadors where not only people with dubious track records were recommended, but there were more political appointees than career diplomats. The decision had to be withdrawn based on the track records of some of the candidates. These instances highlight how adverse political behaviour is fuelling negative bureaucratic practices and robbing Nepali systems of any semblance of meritocracy. Despite the questionable legitimacy of the government’s decisions in both cases, the Nepali people have resorted to their usual apathy and moved on to the next agenda. Once again, the political power bearers evaded accountability, and the citizens turned their gaze elsewhere.
The Nepali bureaucracy deserves credit for standing its ground and weathering multiple political and social upheavals. However, the brilliant officers who occupy the bureaucratic rank and file have been beaten into apathy by the very poor incentive structure and devaluation of merit. Since a merit-based performance appraisal system and career growth are not institutionalised, and connections to power centres assist in landing coveted postings, officials invest time and energy in distributing favours to the “right” people at the cost of service delivery to the common people.
The gateway to Nepal’s public service, the Public Service Commission (PSC) exams, are known for their fairness. However, they are also blamed for promoting mediocrity with their focus on memorised facts rather than problem solving competencies. The unstructured PSC interviews do not provide opportunities to compare the merit of the candidates. PSC graduates are not necessarily offered posts relevant to their academic background or previous experience. Civil service officials, not invested in appeasing power centres for career enhancement, openly claim that they prepare for the PSC exams during office hours. If the PSC judged a candidate’s merit based on technical expertise, vision, efficiency and results, such rote learning and regurgitation of information may be rendered obsolete.
Inter-ministerial transfers of civil servants ensure that they do not need to be experts in a particular technical area. From PSC exams to their work postings, specialisation is not a requirement. Nepali bureaucrats, therefore, seldom possess specialised technical knowledge on the diverse thematic areas they are tasked with. In the environment where they live and work, incentives for building expertise in particular thematic areas are scant. In fact, building expertise is even unnecessary.
Resultant apathy and unaccountability
All these culminate in the apathy among bureaucrats that Nepali citizens often complain about. This visible apathy is compounded by the absence of penal measures for mediocre or poor performance. The result is pure apathy and unaccountability as there are very few circumstances in which a government servant’s job may be at risk. In the first emblematic case above, isn’t it the responsibility of the outgoing IGP to ensure that the organisation continues to run smoothly after his retirement? Should he not have objectively selected and groomed his successor while he was still in office? A system of penalisation for poor performance may have propelled timely action and limited the unnecessary political intervention in the security sector.
Bureaucratic corruption and rent seeking are often condoned under the pretext of a poor incentive structure. Bureaucratic gatekeepers often seek personal benefits from citizens and internationally supported programmes. Except for a few, even the most critical government servants do not refuse foreign trips at the latter’s expense. The funds spent on their travels were meant to support Nepal’s development. At the same time, even though Nepal has perpetually been on the lowest rung of Transparency International’s corruption perception index, there are few anti-corruption programmes supported by international assistance.
Federal restructuring of Nepal necessitates public service reform. Nepal’s constitution and bureaucratic processes entail excellent provisions for political and social inclusion. Accordingly, 40 percent of the Members of Parliament (MP) are elected through proportional representation, and 33 percent of the parliamentary seats are reserved for women. Local electoral provisions demand 40 percent women and 20 percent Dalit representation. Likewise, 45 percent of the seats in the civil service and the military and police services have been reserved since 2007.
These provisions lay solid grounds for sustainably addressing the lopsided political and bureaucratic representation of different disadvantaged groups. However, innovative thinking about administrative reform and policy development is required to ensure merit-based grounds for promotion. Challenges stemming from elite capture of reserved seats and undue political interference in public service appointments need to be addressed.
Operationalising federal structures requires the development of provincial institutions. These empowered local bodies with over 22 exclusive functions will also need trained functionaries. So far, the government has not made any public administration reform plans public. But with the upcoming local elections and the need to make local bodies effective, functional clarity is critical.
Federal Nepal’s public service should be based on meritocracy, efficiency, transparency and accountability. The inclusive constitutional and bureaucratic provisions should be backed by a system where merit propels bureaucratic careers. Additionally, room for specialised technical capacities and perpetual professional growth for civil servants should be envisioned. In the medium term, strong and sustainable capacity development measures and institutions need to be envisioned, especially at the local level, as the Local Level Training Academy (LDTA) is considered to lack capacity. In the long term, the PSC may rethink its recruitment methods to foster vision, technical expertise and efficiency.
A democratic separation of power provides checks and balances against potential abuse of authority. Since the representation of issues of public concern by political actors and bureaucratic technical inputs contribute to public policy formulation and execution, lawmaking and executing bodies are intricately linked. And this relation should be based on absolute transparency, mutual accountability and balance. The major challenge lies in balancing politico-bureaucratic relations to maximise their constructive potential for the development and implementation of good policies.
Karki is a freelance writer