A case for good governanceThere have been five Administrative Reforms Commissions but very little reform
Ideally, how to make governance more ‘pro-public’ should be the basic concern of the government of Nepal. Towards this aim, ‘governance reform’ is being sought and deliberated upon, but more often than not, without any logical consequence. The widely prevailing view in the government is that all past efforts at reforms have been constrained by a low level of commitment and absence of a ‘change-friendly and change-oriented bureaucracy’. However, the causes of this pathetic malaise are not explained. This fallacious argument assumes that ‘good civil service’ can actually provide ‘good governance’ while there is ‘bad politics’, which lies at the very core of governance issues.
Lies, lies and more lies
It may be mentioned here that all political parties have had their ‘tryst with governance’. It may be recalled too that those who wielded power during the late years of the monarchy and in later times tried to convince everyone that Nepal’s nascent democracy was sound and was deeply committed to reforms, reforms and more reforms.
We are told that between 1952 and 1992, there have been five Administrative Reforms Commissions. Some were actually led by prime ministers such as Tanka Prasad Acharya and Girija Prasad Koirala. Yet reforms have been halting or marginal at best. A prominent example of an elusive reform is the classic case of the so-called position classification system that never came to pass despite its high-powered institutionalisation by USAID in 1965 and conceptualisation by renowned intellectuals drawn from Harvard, Cornell and other such institutions.
Many lessons have been drawn with the passage of time, but alas, not the main one, which is that administrative reforms in Nepal have taken place to expunge the civil, judicial and security services of the vestiges of past political dispensations and to fill the administrative void with loyal supporters rather than to promote the principles of the rule of law and merit or, indeed, to render the necessary checks and balances on the unhindered application of political power and its consequences on the national interest.
The bureaucracy has been used as a convenient means to fulfil the political ends of the powers that be. The bureaucrats have, in turn, seized the opportunity to play second fiddle and be self-serving, thus placing their interests above that of the nation’s and especially those of the poor and outlying districts. The systemic politico-bureaucratic nexus that exists today is engaged in sharing the spoils of power and authority that has been primarily facilitated by the easy money that flows with donor-driven foreign aid in search of the elusive, exogenously-determined goals precisely like those conceived by the donors for civil service reforms.
Given the systemic political graft, bureaucratic corruption and mismanagement, it bemuses many like us to be told that recent ‘reform achievements’ have been over such minor matters. The litany of achievements just mentioned reads more like a routine annual progress report of the Ministry of General Administration than a broad-scale reform on governance and its resultant impact on the people—be they the private sector, the public sector, the informal sector’s poor people or people in civil society. What action has been taken so far is no more than mundane personnel policy matters with marginal significance on the lives of the people at large.
Changing the system
Downsizing the central bureaucracy should be the first task in reform. Such an exercise in downsizing should be undertaken by examining the need for and workload of each post. How else can it be lean, efficient and economical? Integration through ministerial mergers for better inter-ministerial communication and coordination should be the secondary rationale for the proposed reforms. This will help maximise transparency and accountability through rationalisation and avoidance of duplication of functions besides helping to improve the quality of service through better integration of sector programming, budgeting and implementation of policies. This needs to be facilitated by integrating in-house research, training and consultancy functions under one ministerial roof.
Structural reforms constitute vitally necessary and sufficient conditions for a pro-public civil service, especially because reforms in the civil service should be moulded and synchronised holistically with another kind of reform, namely towards broader decentralisation and local self-governance.
These reforms need to be guided by what may be referred to here as the four Ds: (1) Delegation, (2) Deregulation, (3) De-concentration and (4) Devolution of political power to promote modern concepts of ‘consumer sovereignty’ (rendered through maximisation of market choices and legal protection of individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness), ‘community sovereignty’ (rendered through local ownership and management of the local natural resources in such forms as community forests, irrigation, roads, schools and hospitals and self-managed by user groups) and the traditional concept of ‘national sovereignty’.
In the era of global interdependence, regional and sub-regional integration, the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ must be enriched with new meaning with additional principles so as to suit the emerging new world order. We can no more safeguard the national interest and our core values through the centralisation of executive, legislative and judicial powers in the hands of a ruling elite through an economic system found on national planning.
At the centre, much more than a bureaucracy is needed. It must be a technocracy with superbly educated and trained public servants who are in a position to negotiate internationally as well as guide and serve the local bureaucrats for them to be able to be locally self-reliant and to be empowered to generate local economic growth and employment, and to be engaged in social mobilisation of the poor and poverty eradication and the provision of social safety nets for local communities.
It is said that democracy is, in the end analysis, the rule of the middle class. When this class is as corrupt, careless and unpatriotic, as we now find it in Nepal, it is easy to imagine why people believe that democracy stands on very fragile foundations. Yet, there is hope left in a potential scenario which ensures that pressing issues get addressed through the application of the ‘rule of law’ and effective governance reforms for the greater common good.
Rana is a former finance minister of Nepal and an economist, and Thakur is a New Delhi-based public policy professional and columnist