Yangchen C Rinzin 

A common issue every ministry raised during the recent mid-term reviews (MTR) of 12th Five-Year Plan: the lack of coordination among agencies that hampered work progress.

However, this was not the first time the issue was flagged. Incoordination issues among agencies even within the same ministry, which has often led to duplication of developmental activities, were raised almost in every meeting for decades.

To many, “lack of coordination” and “working in silos” have become cliché among the bureaucrats and that there were no efforts to address the issue effectively.

Ironically, the 12th Plan formulation, execution and implementation are underpinned by the principles of coordination, consolidation and collaboration to achieve greater gains.

Yet, almost two years into the 12th Plan those who are supposed to coordinate and work to achieve the planned activities are the ones complaining about coordination issues and citing them as reasons for not being able to deliver on those activities.

The 12th Plan document states that it is unprecedented both in size and scope and will demand utmost dedication on the part of the more than 54,000 public servants.

Lack of coordination between the Tourism Council of Bhutan and other agencies hindered implementing tourism-related activities, and the lack of proper secretariat building affected the efficiency of service delivery of the education ministry because it affected coordination.

An information and communications ministry official said that often different agencies have developed different online systems creating unnecessary duplication. This has led to confusion among service users affecting the service delivery.

The Royal University of Bhutan has plans to introduce new courses like Artificial Intelligence and hotel management in colleges. The problem was it neither informed its chairman nor looked into the capacity of faculty that would teach AI. Its hotel management courses are being offered by private institutions or Royal Institute for Tourism and Hospitality.

As discussions continued, it became obvious that with some coordination among the agencies such issues could have been avoided.

For instance, A major coordination gap was exposed when Renewable Natural Resources’ data contradicted vastly with the findings of Population and Housing Census of Bhutan 2017. Observers said that the agriculture ministry had deviated from its mandate of production and marketing agriculture goods to other things like ecotourism.

Why is there a coordination issue?

The issue is as old as the system of modern governance itself. Some of the civil servants and former civil servants Kuensel spoke to said that the biggest issue for coordination is because each agency protects its own turfs.

“But what is each department going to do about it or how?” a senior civil servant said. “This could be happening because of competing rules and regulations that are framed to protect individual agencies’ own interests.”

Some said that the onus to improve coordination and collaboration falls on the heads of the agencies. “Otherwise, what’s the use of having the same people at the MTR raising the same issue when their job is to coordinate,” a former secretary said.

Others questioned the value of raising the same issues when nothing is being done because many fear that they would lose authority or are non-risk takers.

“Often, agency heads feel that others shouldn’t outshine or perform better than his or her agency since it would mean losing chances of him or her being recognised,” a chief officer said. “This usually happens among agencies, which generally have similar or cross-cutting mandates.”

Today, we have two different departments, road and transport under two different ministries when they could be one department. Some said this is probably why Thimphu’s traffic has worsened over the years.

One of the civil servants said this is why Thimphu’s structural plan is messed up because thromde and works and human settlement ministry had long overdue coordination issues.

The low emission transport system project was handled by a single official. However, the official is now out of the project and joined another office seeking better career opportunities. Some civil servants said that RCSC’s rules did not encourage rising up the career ladder in the same organisation. The project’s fate remains in limbo.

A planning officer said that coordination is not easy when different dzongkhags have different sets of targets and ministries have their own targets. “But it’s important that we achieve our targets so that we don’t mess up our Individual Work Plan. Even if we take a risk we’re penalised instead of being appreciated.”

A few said maybe, it was time for a hiring and firing system in the civil service. With many such petty issues unsolved, civil servants said that this could be the reason His Majesty issued Kasho for reform.

What could be done? 

Retired civil servants said that when everyone knows there is an issue, people must do something to fix it. “It would entirely depend on the leadership and the leader’s mindset to do away with the turf protection,” one said.

Some civil servants said this was because of the mentality that they must do the job that they are given even if it would be duplication. “We have to shed the thinking that this is our agency’s duty and we must not let others do it.”

Today, the biggest coordination example should be how the pandemic was handled under one leader that foresaw the coordination issue.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said last month that coordination issues were raised almost in all the presentations and that they must work on resolving them.

Lyonchhen said that on the first day of every month he would sit with different agencies to discuss and bring about better coordination.