Bhutan is at a crossroads, in every sense – rebuilding an economy crippled by the pandemic, reforming the civil service to better cater to the changing demands of the 21st century, and revolutionising the education system to produce future ready citizens. His Majesty The King’s vision for the foreseeable future is crystal clear – for Bhutan to become self-reliant and a fully developed country within our lifetime. And so much of it all lies in the hands of our civil servants.

With over 31,000 employees, our Civil Service is by far the largest employer in the country, and by that account, the largest pool of know-how and talent. There is roughly one civil servant for every 24 Bhutanese, which must be amongst the world’s best. South Korea’s is about 1:50 (Edge Weekly, Oct. 2019). From our GDP of about Nu. 200 billion, we spend close to Nu. 20 billion annually on civil servants pay and allowances. Given such statistics, one will be tempted to believe that Bhutan’s planning, policies, strategies, infrastructure or services are of the highest standards or amongst the most efficient. The biggest question is “Are they”?

The civil service worldwide is ideally a dynamic institution, constantly evolving to meet challenges of the changing times. In Bhutan too, we know our civil service has come a long way. However, the call for change is stronger now because the change outside and around us today is more rapid and disruptive, and problems of the VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), world are increasingly becoming more pronounced. Civil servants need to catch up faster to stay relevant and ahead.

In the Royal Decree on Civil Service Reform issued on 17 December 2020, His Majesty The King acknowledges the contribution of the civil servants in the nation-building process thus far, and calls for its reform in preparation for the future. It also highlights an area of concern, that appears to be amongst the greatest grievances against the civil servants in Bhutan today – “the sense of complacency and indifference generated by guarantee of job security.” That civil servants, rather than facilitating, are becoming an impediment to development and progress, is a matter that merits deep introspection by individual civil servants and organisational leadership. Nobody would want to be in the right place for the wrong reasons, doing the wrong things.

As we embark on this important journey to reform the civil service as envisioned in the Royal Decree, I reflect on four mindsets that could be cultivated in our civil service. His Majesty The King once remarked that with the right mindset and attitude, an average man can move mountains.

The Servant-Leader Mindset

Civil servants are paid to serve the larger public or national interests, including policy formulation, planning and strategising, policy implementation, resource mobilisation and utilisation, infrastructure development, monitoring and evaluation, public service delivery etc. Because civil servants are paid to do what we are expected or entrusted to do, the most undesirable mindset in civil servants will be to think that we are doing someone a favour. The work civil servants do is not charity.

But public service, in its true sense, is much more profound and transcends any monetary equation. Ideally, civil servants should be intrinsically motivated by the service we can render in the form of the work we do. We should be driven by the impacts that our sincerity and hard work will have on the wellbeing of fellow citizens and our nation at large.

The mindset we ought to have in the civil service is that of a servant-leader. Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay “The Servant as a Leader” wrote thus about a servant-leader: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first…”.

With the loyalty of a servant and the competency of a leader, there is no doubt that Bhutan’s civil servants will serve our public better and navigate the complexities of the 21st century. But first, we need to discover the “servant” in the civil servant.


The Entrepreneurial Mindset

The draft 21st Century Economic Roadmap for Bhutan highlights how excessive regulation, bureaucratic red-tapism and indifference in the civil service are painful bottlenecks in our system, particularly for businesses. Many of us in the civil service know this. Perhaps we have a great opportunity now to change it, and change must begin with(in) oneself.

If our country has to become self-reliant and a fully developed country during our lifetime as envisioned by His Majesty The King, civil servants will increasingly need to shift gear towards a more entrepreneurial mindset. Civil servants need not do business but we need to have the business acumen as a part of our competency. We have the potential to be more decisive, innovative and risk-taking. We need to graduate from the existing fail-safe mentality.

A robust and resilient economy, high income and high living standards are necessary imperatives of a developed country. If we have this realisation, it won’t be difficult for our fellow civil servants across various agencies to formulate plans and policies that will help generate more revenues for our country. We see in other countries how the creative minds of civil servants boost national economies. If civil servants have an entrepreneurial mindset, we would see, or better still create, opportunities beyond the regulatory horizons.

If we are to become a developed country in our generation, it will be imperative to promote an entrepreneurial mindset in our civil service – a mindset that values time, innovation, efficiency, partnership, data, risk-taking and money. It is about time that we rethink the belief, or the myth, that we are happy with less.


The Growth-Mindset

A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful ways; a growth mindset thrives on the challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work (Carol Dweck).

Nobody knows everything under the sun. But today, we have the opportunity and the resources to know as much as we need to, or wish to. All we need is a bit of humility to acknowledge that we don’t know everything, the openness to learn, and the belief that we can get better through our efforts.

In a recent RIGSS Podcast interview, the Resident Representative of UNDP Bhutan, Ms. Azusa Kubota, highlighted the need for “humility” as a part of building capabilities. She said: “The first humility is to really admit that we all need to embrace the fact that we don’t know many things happening around us and we certainly don’t know our future; acknowledging this requires courage and also this will allow us to seek support in defining what it is that we don’t know”.

In the Bhutanese civil service, the assurance of job security irrespective of how much we know or don’t know, or how much we perform or don’t perform, seems to be one of the biggest inhibitors of the growth mindset.

The inability of the system to differentiate civil servants based on merit leads to a perception of lack of recognition to those who invest time and effort to learn more and do better.

The world around us is fast changing; the only way the bureaucracy can catch up and stay ahead and relevant is by bureaucrats embracing a growth mindset. A growth mindset will help us know more, innovate, solve problems and dream bigger. It will help us achieve higher levels of motivation and performance. A growth mindset will allow us to embrace change. With a growth mindset, it’s not about how good you are, it’s rather about how good you want to be. And sky is the only limit.


The Problem-Solving Mindset

In a recent zoom conference, author and social entrepreneur Tami Simon was asked about the mindset of employees in her company that makes her company do so well. The mindset, she said, is: “You have a problem? Let me solve it.”

We are generally good at problem identification or definition, which no doubt is important. For example, most of us today can talk about the problems the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted upon us as a nation, such as unemployment, dwindling economic growth, food security etc. We now need to find solutions, which is most important.

Those with a problem-solving mindset embrace problems rather than shun them. They see opportunities. And embracing problems is perhaps the starting point to finding solutions. In times of massive uncertainty like today, problems are varied and never-ending, and the only way to move forward and do better is by discussing and discovering solutions to our problems.

Bhutan’s civil service has the best of brains and a wealth of experience. We are solving a lot of problems, and we can do so much more. We are capable of taking that “dragonfly eye view” of problems so that we see threats and opportunities beyond the periphery of vision (McKinsey Quarterly, Sep. 2020). The ability to view things with a 360 degrees lens is crucial for each and every Bhutanese, particularly those of us bestowed with the trust of public service. If we realize that we can, and must, solve our own problems, then we can. If we have a problem-solving mindset, everything else towards finding solutions will follow.

The Royal Kasho on Civil Service reforms not only gives us the vision, it shows us the paths to get there. It is us civil servants, and the civil service system as a whole, who need to be amongst the first to acknowledge that we need to do better because we have the potential to do so. Potential unutilised is opportunity wasted.

As we embark on this milestone journey of civil service reforms, efforts towards transforming the civil servant mindset need to be accorded utmost consideration. We may have the best of systems but if we fail to re-engineer the civil servant mindset, much of what we have today will likely remain the same. The real thrust to change must always come from within, and we must do all we can to unleash that thrust.


By Chewang Rinzin

A longer version of this article is on the RIGSS blog-