Oli continues to transfer secretaries without giving them time to settle down at one placeServing and retired bureaucrats say the current administration is stable and it could have done much to strengthen civil service, but it is doing just the opposite.
On Thursday, Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers Yadav Koirala got transferred to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development. He was one of the 10—out of the total 69 secretaries of the Government of Nepal—who were transferred. Transfer of secretaries is just a regular process in bureaucracy and Cabinet makes these decisions. But in Koirala’s case, this was his fifth transfer in just two years.
Former bureaucrats and experts on administrative affairs say while the government can shuffle civil servants when it wants, senior staff, like secretaries, should be allowed to serve for some time before they are sent from one ministry to another so as to allow bureaucracy to function smoothly.
“For good results, delivery per se and policy consistency, it is better if a secretary is given at least two years to serve at one ministry or one state entity,” said Kedar Bahadur Adhikari, who retired as secretary from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation last week. He had served in five different ministries, including the Ministry of Health and Population, in his last five years as a secretary.
Frequent transferring of top bureaucrats like secretaries and joint-secretaries has long been the bane of Nepal’s bureaucracy, which is also called the permanent government, as the elected one has a maximum term of five years.
However, in the past, Nepal has always struggled to have an elected government complete its full term. With new governments formed every nine months on an average, frequent transfers of secretaries had become the order of the day, as ministers would make changes in their ministries just as they wished.
The Oli government, however, was given the mandate to serve for the full term, hence it should have worked on strengthening bureaucracy by letting secretaries serve at least for two years at one ministry, according to former and serving bureaucrats.
There is no official data on how many changes or transfers have been made at the top level of bureaucracy in the last two and half years after Oli became the prime minister. A secretary, however, said there were more than a dozen reshuffles of the top bureaucrats in this period.
“This makes the bureaucracy very unstable and vulnerable,” the secretary told the Post on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
After Oli became the prime minister, he made two mistakes, according to at least two serving secretaries.
“One was failure to adjust the civil servants as per the new federal spirit,” said one secretary who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “Second, the frequent transfers of civil servants at the top level were made based on the prime minister’ and his ministers’ personal preferences and bureaucrats’ ideological beliefs.”
By the time bureaucrats become joint-secretaries and secretaries, they have already served at various ministries and state agencies and during that course they have their own expertise in certain areas.
That’s why, experts say, such top level bureaucrats should be allowed to remain at one ministry for some time so that they can help in policy decisions and also assist the ministers in a more effective way. Frequently transferring secretaries without taking their expertise into consideration also affects government functioning.
A tax expert presently heads bureaucracy at the Ministry of Health and Population when the country is fighting the pandemic.
According to a secretary who has served at the ministry, it has two secretary positions and one of them has to be a doctor, according to a general understanding, but at present it has only one top bureaucrat.
“No one wants to go to the Health Ministry fearing there will be a power tussle,” the secretary, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Post.
After Oli became the prime minister in early 2018, bureaucracy suffered a lot due to frequent changes of secretaries and joint-secretaries, adjustment of civil servants in the provinces and local governments, and disrespecting the rights of civil servants’ trade union and this has accumulated dissatisfaction in civil service from the top to the bottom, according to senior bureaucrats and trade union leaders.
Transfers of senior bureaucrats are dictated by three factors, according to Govinda Kusum, a former home secretary.
“One is many senior bureaucrats who have served in the provinces want to come back to Kathmandu for reasons like better career opportunities, family, health and others. Two, secretaries themselves want postings in ministries where they get facilities or it is easy to work at,” said Kusum. “Three, ministers prefer certain top bureaucrats at their ministries so that they can work without any hindrances.”
But that said, according to Kusum, frequent transfers are detrimental to the country because such moves create not only policy inconsistencies, there could also be a lack of personal and institutional memory.
Kusum shared his experience of dealing with Bhutan during the refugee crisis during the 1990s-2000s.
Between 1995 and 2006, Nepal and Bhutan held 17 rounds of talks to resolve the issue of the around 100,000 Bhutanese refugees living in various camps in Nepal
“In that one decade, the Home Ministry saw 10 secretaries while Bhutan had just one all along,” said Kusum. “Even when I was leading our delegation, I saw the Bhutanese had come fully prepared as they had adequate personal and institutional memory but we did not have that leverage.”
Only two secretaries have been serving in the same ministries—finance and defence— since this government came to power, while most others have been shuffled around, at least in three to four ministries, according to the two secretaries the Post talked to.
Shanker Das Bairagi had also continued at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until he was promoted to the post of chief secretary earlier this month.
Koirala’s recent transfer will take him to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development for a second stint.
He has also served in Kathmandu Metropolitan City as its executive officer.
An old hand at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Koirala was at the Ministry of Health and Population earlier this year. After the controversy over procuring medical equipment, Koirala had been transferred from the Health Ministry to the Prime Minister’s Office in May.
There are altogether 10 services in the bureaucracy like health, finance, general administration and foreign.
Health, Physical Infrastructure and Transport, Energy, and Forest and Environment are some of the technical ministries where secretaries with technical know-how are usually preferred.
“Nepal’s bureaucracy seriously lacks expertise and specialisation and without it, no bureaucracy can be transformed,” said Kusum.
A secretary who has been transferred to three different offices in one year said that the morale of civil servants is at an all time low.
“No one can protest or oppose the government decision,” he said. “We used to have a meeting of secretaries to air our grievances at least once a month chaired by the chief secretary but this has not taken place for the last four months. The loyalty of the chief secretary is to party leaders rather than to the tens of thousands of civil servants.”
It is not just the top bureaucrats who are unhappy with such frequent transfers in civil service.
“Secretaries are transferred frequently and in some cases within one month due to the personal interest of ministers or ruling party leaders or some interest groups,” said Gopal Pokharel, chairman of the Nepal Civil Servants Union which is a wing of the larger trade union of Nepal’s non-gazetted civil servants.
Over 35,000 civil servants are associated with civil servants’ trade unions and they are one of the strongest voices of Nepal’s civil service.
“Bureaucracy has become a puppet of the government. Civil servants are transferred at whims,” said Pokharel. “We have failed to build a system on the transfer of the bureaucrats, but no one speaks up.”