“We need to acknowledge the genuine efforts made at reforms so far. Nevertheless, the core impediments against the development of a more professional and efficient bureaucracy remain entrenched in the system. So we must also have the audacity to equally acknowledge them in preparing for the future.”
Coinciding with the National Day in 2020, His Majesty The King symbolically handed over to the people of Bhutan a kasho (Royal edict) on the reform decreed for the civil service.
The Royal aspiration laid out in the kasho is to have a civil service grounded as a robust organisation that is apolitical, meritorious, innovative, resilient, and driven by a culture of research and state-of-the-art technology, enabling legislations and indeed the highest ethical standards of its leaders and personnel.
Royal Civil Service Commission’s notification coming after His Majesty’s National Day address emphasising accountability and the need to take bold decisions has been lauded as a ‘bold decision by the commission.
What ails the civil service?
Civil servants are quick to point out so many problems in the system. One major problem, many of those who spoke to Kuensel say, is the existence of deep-rooted nepotism. Promotion, placements, training, entitlements and other opportunities depend on favouritism. “This is how the system manipulates a person and the system loses meritocracy in the end,” a civil servant said.
Another problem is the power blocks in the Bhutanese civil service system where leaders do not engage in consultation dialogues but carry out activities in silos. The culture needs change, some said, and then remove those who cannot adapt.
“If a garden does not give flowers, you improve the soil,” a former civil servant said.
Observers say that often these leaders are rendered ineffective by multiple masters pulling them in different directions. Therefore, the expectation is that those civil servants being “managed out” don’t just become scapegoats for a bigger systemic problem.
“Most importantly, one must hope that this exercise was itself a fair and rigorous one, and not like how some of the said leaders get appointed,” an observer said.
One area the civil servants themselves remark on is the excessive bureaucracy or red tape. Some said that red tape exists to avoid the boss’s risks and shortcomings because pleasing the boss is more important.
Many critics said that when around half of those executives could not meet the expectations of the assessment, then it was obvious that the selection and appointment process of those into such posts are not up to the standard.
Better late than never
Given these challenges in the system, the assessment and the decision of the RCSC has been lauded as an appropriate intervention. From lecturers to farmers, industrialists, shopkeepers, college students, mid-level civil servants, LG leaders and those in the private sector – all welcomed the move.
“I am not shocked by the findings. This was expected. Many fingers will be pointed at the RCSC but if we keep doing that then we will never get this done,” an observer, Kuenga said.
A local government leader said that such regular assessments of public servants and leaders, in particular, will keep the rest in check and are bound to be extra vigilant and efficient in their duties. One of the important aspects of assessment, he said, should be behavioural skills that matter in delivering services.
One likened the civil service system to a chronically ill patient for whom little band-aid treatments are not going to work. “We need a decision like this that will send a strong signal. I am interested to see how RCSC takes it forward from here. Media and public, in general, must do our job to keep them on their toes.”
“We need executive leaders who have the vision, passion and are able to make decisions not just warm chairs and take no risks at all,” he said.
Many said that no system or assessment will be perfect and that many flaws would be pointed at this too. However, they said that the important thing was to keep the bigger picture in mind. “Save a few and let the system rot or sacrifice a few and resurrect the system?”
LG leaders said with more of such assessments, the public service delivery improves and the confidence and trust of the public in the system is restored.
What was assessed?
A senior legal practitioner said that while leadership assessment exercises are necessary, there has to be a holistic approach of conducting the assessment. “One interview cannot judge a person’s capability and performance.”
He said that some might be capable and competent, but might not be good at expressing it. “I’m told that there were foreign experts on the panel. They should understand Bhutanese nature and DNA. Bhutanese by nature are not pompous, but submissive. We’re trained to be like that. These factors could have played against the executives too.”
A senior executive, who was assessed, said, on one hand, they say achievement of the plans and programmes by way of Annual Performance Agreement will be a major criterion for driving a merit-based system, for which the leadership is crucial. However, if the agency did well then the success is attributed to some hard-working and good performers in that organisation and not to the leader.
An option to improve the work culture and effectiveness of civil servants would be to introduce a corporate style of governance based on performance and productivity.
An industrialist from Pasakha said: “Private sector has a different system of assessments and incentives. Reprimands and punishments happen on a regular basis. So far for the civil servants, they were served on carrots and the stick part was missing.”
Others suggested removing half the civil servants that are there today, removing the privileges, making the term of executives a fixed contract, to ensure movement up the career ladders for those performers and efficiency.
Executive posts could be made a fixed-term contract, shorter-term for higher positions with clear TOR, no promotions, transfers, or training. “Hire and fire like in the UN and the job opening should be open to all,” a former civil servant said.
Another idea to reduce the number of civil servants is to privatise as many services as possible for instance issuing driving licences, land surveying, cleaning, security, dancers, trade licences, timber permits, route permits, trade license, and building permits, etc. Civil servants could focus on policy making, monitoring, and quality control.