Listening live – in Thimphu’s Changlimithang Stadium – to His Majesty The King’s National Address, I was truly excited when it became apparent that the focus of the speech was on the challenges to the Bhutanese civil service, the topic I had discussed with junior civil servants the previous Friday evening at the Institute of Happiness in Thimphu. His Majesty’s address showed, once again, both a complete awareness of the current international discourse, here in Public Management Reform, and a specifically Bhutanese take on things that judges policy models according to their merits and decides according to whether they fit, not whether they are fashionable.
The latter is in line with the concept of Non-Western Public Administration (NWPA), i.e. the recognition that there is not one best solution to Public Management issues, but what is often seen as “best” is merely global-Western, specific to political systems in time and space. In addition, Public Administration is a particularly fashion-driven field, exemplified by the recent “New Public Management” (NPM) paradigm that held sway from the mid-1990s to the 2000s; a state-critical, managerial, neo-liberal approach that is generally recognized by now as more of a problem than a solution because it actually cost more and performed less, while decapacitating the civil service in a highly counterproductive way.
And while Bhutan picked up some NPM tools and even maintains some of them today, altogether, the success story of Bhutan precisely lies into not accepting outside advice unquestioned, to the extent that this is possible in an interconnected world – that, in fact, is one of the central ideas of the Gross National Happiness. In that, Bhutan is the equivalent of Singapore, arguably the most successful country on earth, where picking and choosing from global models and trends, rather than uncritically adopting them (let allowing international organizations to push them), has been part of that very success story.
This is also so regarding the civil service, which in Singapore is highly competent, highly paid – and highly effective and therefore also highly trusted by the citizens. Singapore adopted many NPM tools, but always based on a high-capacity civil service system where genuine overall performance matters. The key to Singaporean public management success is agile stability, being solid and framework-setting when necessary and swift and innovative when that becomes the point. His Majesty’s challenge to the civil service where it can be a model for public service excellence goes precisely in this direction.
But the first thing about the Bhutanese civil service to recognize and remember is how good it is. In fact, if we use the region as a context, Bhutan has by far the best – the least corrupt and most qualified – civil service in all South Asia, and if some might say that this might also be a size issue, then that in no way distracts from its quality (if anything, it may point at a governance problem of too-large countries). All research we have points at the fact that the Monarchy itself, by now unique in the region as well, is one of the main reasons for this. All that means that, while one needs to constantly improve, keep the focus, and stay au courantas regards technological and other developments, it is of great importance to Bhutan to keep what one has and not to endanger this core substance, while addressing improvable points, which by general recognition are indeed performance and citizen-orientation (which we under NPM called “customers”, but they are of course much more than that).
As His Majesty pointed out, what is called Wagner’s Law of ever-increasing state activity means that the Bhutanese civil service needs to be more competent than ever, and that, current Public Management research shows, is best accomplished via public sector motivation than running after – often arbitrary – indicators and performance agreements. But we know this since a long time – as the founders of modern bureaucracy, the Imperial Chinese, found out about one thousand years ago (the famous “Memorandum of a Thousand Words” of Song Dynasty Chancellor Wang Anshi shows this very well), overdoing monitoring and having it too frequently is counter-productive as it forestalls genuine innovations and demotivates the best civil servants, while not catching the bad ones.
But what about efficiency? Can Bhutan, which is not as rich as Singapore, afford a large, competent civil service? The answer is that it cannot afford notto have one, but, as was the case in China, the requirement for any successful country is that the civil service performs, and performs excellently, in the service of nation and people. A well-paid, high-capacity civil service has no excuse not to be effective.
But that effectiveness is more important than efficiency, nice as the latter one is. A civil service ratio of 1:13 is not low but also not especially high, especially if security, health, and education personnel are counted in, as are the employees of the State-Owned Enterprises. But we have anyway moved away from NPM-like conceptions such as “administrative burden.” The civil service creates public value and paying for it is an investment, as most recently Mariana Mazzucato from University College London has been pointing out (the current European Union research and innovation programs are premised on her ideas). If the civil service does not perform well, the consequence must not be attempts to abolish or reduce it but thinking about how to genuinely improve it so that it works as it should.
The new Bhutanese government, welfare- and solution-oriented as it is, and with its highly competent and motivated team (or so is my impression), is well-positioned to look at the genuine effects of Public Management Reform. Government and civil service share the responsibility for addressing the challenges posed in Bhutan, among which most people would probably count youth unemployment and migration from the countryside – related phenomena which are classic, if very tricky, public policy issues; issues that might be addressed with higher priority in a GNH context than within another framework.
Finally, an observation from Estonia, often called a leader in e-Governance: Technological advances are important, and it is key to be in line with them, and in a country like Bhutan, the Internet and especially social media present unique chances for policy co-creation, implementation and coordination. However, overall, there has been little Digital Transformation – the civil service uses, rather than is changed by, digitalization. Nor can one expect much savings – Digital Governance improves all kinds of performance, but it does not save money, at least not within the state budget. Hence, the challenges to the civil service to be high-capacity and to perform extremely well, based on motivation and creating public value, remain exactly as they were.
His Majesty The King’s National Day Address reminds all of us what the strengths of the Bhutanese civil service are and where it may improve. Being guided by these thoughts will position Bhutan well to keep what it uniquely has and yet to progress further, on its own terms – which are the only real terms there are – on the road to the next 111 years and beyond.
Contributed by Wolfgang Drechsler,
Professor of Governance at Tallinn University of Technology, Associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center, and member of the International Advisory Board of the Institute of Happiness.