This time of the year last year, the discourse, personalised it may be, was about civil service reform and managing out civil servants, including those at the executive level. The reform and transformation initiatives have expanded to the corporate sector and state-owned enterprises. It is welcomed with some even considering it a “free consultancy.”
As we await a long break ahead, it is a good time to reflect on what the reform has achieved and what can be done or undone. The first achievement is the recognition and the consent that we have to reform – civil service and beyond. The most important, however, is creating the impact of the reforms initiated.
Changes are not appreciated when they can pull the rug out of your feet or if we are used to the comforts of doing the same thing – business as usual as it is called now. Reforms are lauded if they can improve, for instance, service delivery, or if civil or public servants can digest that they are the servants – as the name suggests – and not bosses or officers or Dashos ordering or making people run around.
A year into the reforms, there is a consensus that changes are becoming visible. Decisions like restructuring ministries and departments, making people and organisations accountable for failures or delays, imposing penalties, and improving service delivery are appreciated to the extent that those outside the civil and public service feel the reforms served us right! A lot of decisions, sensitive or skeptical, are made possible in the name of the reforms.
Cutting costs or expenditure is another. Millions of Ngultrums are wasted in the name of seminars, study tours, and workshops. Travel and daily subsistence allowances in Bhutan are seen as a good source of income. This is because of loopholes in the system and the acceptance among those claiming and approving. Fixing accountability to an official or a service provider is new because the notion was that nobody could fix them. The reform is changing this including the attitude.
The reforms will continue. It has to because Bhutanese can easily adjust to changes how hard it may be. It will be a lost opportunity if we get used to the so-called berating and scolding of the experts and do not learn from the expertise.
At the same time, we have to see if the reforms and the recommendations are creating an impact. Bhutanese know our system well, its strengths and shortcomings. If some of the reform initiatives are not benefiting, we should be able to recommend changes. The transformation exercise, even if it is headed by top-notch experts, is not foolproof. It need not be Bhutanised, but if its implementation derides the vision, we should be able to reform the reforms.
The Gross National Happiness Commission, for instance, was dissolved to assign other agencies with bigger responsibilities. GNHC officials are with the Cabinet and the finance ministry. How has that helped both the Cabinet and the finance ministry? If officials of the dissolved Commission are doing the same within the Cabinet or the finance ministry, we are back to square one.
Reform means bringing about change. One year is a long time, and we should be able to see many changes – not just complying with the reform team, but riding on the transformation highway and creating impacts.