Challenges in the Bhutanese public sector, from civil servants not being motivated or poorly trained to citizens not being happy with the mediocre public services and cumbersome administrative processes, have grown notably over the years.

His Majesty The King has constantly shared the vision for a developed Bhutan and what Bhutan’s public service should strive for in numerous Royal Addresses, culminating in the issuance of a Royal Decree in 2020 to reform Bhutan’s civil service.

Citizens’ frustrations with the system’s inefficiency resulting in days, weeks or even months of running from one office to another to get a job done have been shared even by public servants. The call for public servants to reflect on the efficiency and quality of the services we provide and our role and behaviours as public servants is greater than ever.

In a Polis conversation with over five hundred Bhutanese public servants and private workers on “What are the desirable behaviours of public servants?” the respondents noted the most desired behaviours among public servants as having a high moral and ethical standing, being polite to clients, being accountable for one’s action and dealing with the public fairly and efficiently.

While we seem to know the desirable behaviours as public servants, the bigger question is whether our day-to-day actions at the workplace translate to such behaviours.

Driving behavioural change is crucial in enabling the civil service as an institution to grow and achieve the level of excellence and sophistication necessary to support the larger national vision of becoming a developed country. It is high time that we realised the importance of keeping pace with global developments and be reminded of His Majesty’s concern as thus stated: “If we are passive, slow, and daunted by the speed and complexity of innovation and change, we will not only fall behind others but our economy also risks being terminally dependent on foreign aid and loans.”

A study on “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behaviour Change” cites two dimensions that give rise to behaviours – the way to achieve (skills or abilities) and the will to engage (motivation) in a behaviour (Berkman, 2018). For an employee to engage in the desired behaviour, he/she must possess the relevant skills or abilities backed by the right motivation. This would require not only a fundamental shift in the skillset and mindset of public servants but indeed a re-engineering of our organisational processes and systems to drive the necessary behavioural changes.

Building a positive organisational culture is key to driving behaviour change in any organisation. Creating conducive work environments that nurture healthy team dynamics and collaboration, and regular and meaningful conversations between the leader and subordinates are important for employees to thrive at work and foster motivation to achieve the larger goals. This is where the role of leaders becomes pivotal; a leader who provides vision, inspires purpose-led actions, drives results, mentors and coaches, and ignites passion in their subordinates is integral to organisational development.

On the other hand, a growth mindset is one of the key factors that enhance lifelong learning, workplace engagement and productivity. For instance, Joshi (2021) describes, a positive mindset as “the tendency to focus on the bright side, expect positive results, and approach challenges with a positive outlook.” While there are a lot of uncertainties during the change management process it is important to maintain a positive outlook. The Polis survey respondents also acknowledged the importance of a positive mindset and highlighted that the seeds of a positive mindset must be cultivated at home and in schools.

Similarly, nudging can create positive and lasting change in the workplace. Improved punctuality among employees with the introduction of the biometric attendance system is a common example. Nudges could also be used to change public behaviours by agencies. A simple example of a nudge with great success is the significant rise in tax compliance in the United Kingdom after a reminder letter was simply reworded to say that most people pay their bills on time (Simmons, n.d.).

Additionally, research suggests that positive non-financial incentives like rewards or recognition, new projects, time-off, praise in public etc. for hard work and achievements, will likely produce the most motivation in employees. It also helps team members to be accountable. Further, inculcating spiritual values in professional life would help employees in finding purpose and driving more ethical behaviours in the workplace. Studies have shown a strong correlation between spirituality and resilience (Smith et al., 2013). According to Sarkar et al., (2017) collective research on psychological resilience suggests that enhancing resilience presents a viable means of preventing the potential negative effects of work stress and enhancing wellbeing and performance in the workplace.

Another powerful driver of behavioural change is training and continuous learning and development. Training enables an individual to acquire new skills, knowledge and abilities. To impart relevant training programmes, it is first essential for organisations to understand the current skill gap of their employees, and the practical realities of daily work. Continuous assessments and post-training engagements are ways to drive behavioural change in the training culture.

In the face of a fast-changing world and the stiff competition for growth and survival, governments and the larger public sector are understandably expected to perform and deliver at a higher level than ever before. In Bhutan too, the many reforms that we are currently undertaking aim to achieve just that, to enable us as a nation to keep pace with, or better still, stay ahead of the global forces of change.

While so much can be envisaged in terms of the macro-level structural and systemic transformation, a fundamental tenet of change remains the human behaviour, driven by one’s mindset, skillset and motivation. Hence, driving a sustained behavioural change in people working in mega state machinery such as the bureaucracy to make them more competent, motivated and performance-oriented is crucial in the pursuit of our larger national goals. Effecting the right behavioural change should not just be an integral part of the current transformation initiatives, it should indeed be the cornerstone of our pursuit of excellence in public service and progress as a nation.

Contributed by 

Sonam Lhamo and Kinley Zam

(The writers are programme officers at RIGSS and this article is a summary of an upcoming report on a study they conducted on “Driving Behavioural Change in Public Service”)