It may be said that Bhutan’s journey of so called modern development had begun in the early 1950s, with His Majesty The Third King at the helm, marking the end of the so called self-imposed isolation period. The National Assembly was established in 1953, Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (district development committee) in 1981, Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (block development committee) in 1991, followed by the delegation of executive powers to elected Cabinet in 1998, the drafting of Nation’s first Constitution in 2005, and culminating in the start of our democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008. 

With the blessings of the extraordinary leadership of our enlightened Monarchs, the nation has already covered great distance in its journey towards a mature democracy and effective local governance within a short span of time. 

Today, the Nation and the People have embarked on a new journey with a new destination of a ‘Developed Bhutan’, a vision that emanated from the Golden Throne. This new vision will have GNH truly embedded in the DNA of our nation and people. 

Amongst many others, the local government will be one of the key drivers in guiding our nation on its path to destination ‘Developed Bhutan’.

In recognition of the important roles and responsibilities of Local Government (LG) and elected leaders, for the first time, all gups (head of a Gewog) received Kabnay (official position based scarf) and all thridzins (Chairpersons)  of Dzongkhag Tshogdu received Pata (official position based sword) respectively from His Majesty The King in 2016.  

His Majesty The King commanded, “…that contrary to what is often perceived, local government is not the lowest level of government, but the nearest and closest level of government for the people…” during the award of Kabney to the gups in October 2016 and Pata to the Dzongkhag Thridzins in December 2016. 

These Royal recognitions to the gups and dzongkhag thridzins reflect the highest level of importance of the local governments and the conviction of their capabilities to make decisions for local development as the “nearest and closest government” of the people. So, all along it was the intent of our enlightened Monarchs to engage and empower the citizens in the governance and development of our Nation. 

To assist the local governments, a bureaucratic system is in place. However, the desired level of efficiency and effectiveness of this system is yet to be realized. As becomes clear by several of the key messages in His Majesty The King’s addresses, the latest being the Royal Address to the Nation at the 113th National Day celebration in 2020 followed by the Royal Kashos (decrees) on Civil Service Reform and Education Reform.  

In my humble opinion, the strong and meaningful support of the bureaucracy to the elected local government leaders will continue to be crucial for some time to come, until the profile of these elected leaders undergoes a big change. I am referring to the Gups, Mangmis (assistant Gup) and Tshogpas (assistant Mangmi). During my once in a lifetime opportunity to serve as Dzongda (CEO of dzongkhag) in Gasa, none of these elected local leaders had formal education beyond high school, and with few of them undergone monastic education. However, I must say, all have performed to the best of their abilities.

I used to promote and practice the concept of Think Nationally and Act Dzongkhagly. Always keeping in mind the vision of our King and the future of our country as a whole, while at the same time operationalizing it at the local level in tangible projects and results, directly benefiting the people of Gasa. We even adopted a slogan – Good to Great Gasa– with the qualification that we will make Gasa the number one amongst the dzongkhags. Number one meaning excelling in all areas, for example to be the cleanest dzongkhag. Not only were we trying to mobilize the Gasa civil servants and its people, but we were trying to tempt the other nineteen dzongkhags to also aspire and achieve more. The expectation was that each of the other dzongkhags would also try to excel each other, thereby igniting a healthy competition and ultimately having all twenty dzongkhags doing outstandingly well.

Believing that a dzongkhag’s performance depends a lot on the leadership of the Dzongda, similarly I believe that a gewog’s performance could depend a lot on the leadership of Gewog Administrative Officers (GAOs).

While efforts have been made in the past to place senior personnel in the dzongkhags, the same has not been true for the gewogs, at least when I was in Gasa. So, in most cases the staff in gewogs were either young officers or senior but less formally educated officers. Either way, there was still a lot to learn and improve in the manner of efficiency and effectiveness. 

Another potential cause might be that most GAOs were on contract recruitment. Generally speaking, the commitment level of those on a contract versus those on a permanent contract is lower. And in most cases GAOs were there just to fill the post and do routine tasks. In addition, both the locally elected members and the dzongkhag-level staff view the gewog staffs, which includes GAOs, as a level lower than them. So I observed in some cases this inherent hierarchial structure was inhibiting innovation and initiativeness. Also, all civil servants, including GAOs, are observers in the gewog tshogde. While it is the same status for Dzongda and other staff in the dzongkhag tshogdu (DT), in my personal experience a Dzongda could still push one’s ideas in DT despite not being a member. This is due to the given profile of a Dzongda both in terms of age and experience in comparison to that of their counterparts, the chairpersons of the DTs and the gups as of today. Of course, this situation might change in due course of time. 

 Therefore, I suspect, in the present time, by default or by design, GAOs are not appropriately placed to be able to make a significant contribution to the local government. 

So, I feel there could be a possible case to revise and upgrade the position and profile of a GAO to equip them to provide a meaningful leadership. May be a revised and upgraded GAO could be at least at a Chief position level (P1), with all civil servants in the gewog reporting to the GAO technically. 

Can a properly positioned GAO be a gewog’s asset and a Nation’s gain ?  

Contributed by Dorji Dhradhul, 

Former Dzongda of Gasa Dzongkhag

NOTE: There are of course some GAOs already doing more than what I am proposing, irrespective of their current formal position (or the lack of it). I salute their commitment and efforts.  

The author wrote this article on Kuensel’s request.