Following the Royal Kasho on the reforms needed in the civil service, Kuensel talked to several civil servants on what is ailing the bureaucracy

Yangchen C Rinzin 

Even as the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) waits for the formation of a civil service reform council, civil servants acknowledge the shortcomings and problems that have become an impediment to the growth and professionalism of the Bhutanese bureaucracy.

Kuensel talked to numerous civil servants, both serving and former, to find out what is ailing the bureaucracy.  Their comments point to the need to overhaul in the system.  Many said that the only visible transformation of the civil service since its inception in 1982 as a Central Personnel Agency of the government, is the increase in the number of civil servants.

Encouraged by what the Royal Kasho has pointed out, civil servants are blunt in their assessment.  One said that civil servants have failed to adapt to the dynamic nature of development and service requirements over time. “This could be because of the system of displaced complacency where the system is protecting bureaucrats more than bureaucrats protecting the system,” he said.

Many point out the contradictions and confusions in the roles and responsibilities that result in the lack of clarity of core functions.  A civil servant for 18 years, said that most bureaucrats in high positions did not want to change and evolve.  “This is one stumbling block that has still held back civil servants from transforming.”

Some accuse the presence of “double standard” in application of rules and regulations within civil service, resulting in a lack of faith and confidence in the system.  The civil service system, they said, has been breeding complacent bureaucrats. “The RCSC has a system of providing a reminder, warning thrice to the non-performing bureaucrat, but immediate actions like the hire and fire tool hardly exists.”

It’s become almost a cliché that once you get into the civil service, the job is secured until one comes into conflict with the law. “The best they can do is transfer them around and wait for them to superannuate,” said a former civil servant, who now works and live in Australia.

It is unfair to generalise all civil servants as incompetent, complacent or lazy, said another. “The best ones join the civil service after the civil service entry examinations,” he said. However, the system does not allow distinguishing. “Some work day and night and are innovative, but when it’s time for reward, there’s no distinguishing.”

Young civil servants feel that there is no grooming or acceptance of change. 

“Our ideas are wasted in the process of persuading the boss to accept them. The ideas die even before they’re heard,” a civil servant with seven years in service said.


Nepotism and red tape?

Civil servants are quick to point out the existence of nepotism, which many say, is deeply rooted.  Promotion, placements, training, entitlements and other opportunities depend on favouritism. 

The observation may be a generalisation, but many attribute civil servants resigning to join the private sector or work abroad to nepotism.

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.

“The possibility of audit objection has probably instilled fear in decision-makers, so much so that in the civil service, nothing moves forward without a committee,” a former civil servant said.

Focusing more on the payment for obligation term, many said that RCSC has failed to retain people who have availed long-term opportunities instead of making best use of the particular official.

“Public relations are more important if a job is needed to be done in the system. What can be worse than this?” an outsider observer asked.


Elected govt. and bureaucracy

It is delieved that the bureaucracy is the leading implementing agency of the elected government’s plans and policies.  But many like to believe that there is a conflict between the “apolitical” body and the elected government.

“Elected governments waver in their decisions. They decide something today and it changes next week,” said a planning officer, adding that her assessment was for all elected governments.

However, civil servants also said that democracy provided an excellent platform in service delivery as there was pressure. “The efficiency of service delivery should depend on the efficiency and ability of bureaucrats. Bureaucracy should drive forward the government of the day’s plans and programme,” a civil servant said.

Some in the civil service are of the view that resistance in the name of remaining apolitical also blocked government’s initiatives. “But there are also several evidences that the government works on the advice of bureaucracy,” he said. “It’s not a marriage made in heaven, but there were improvements.”

Many said what democracy brought was ministers and the bureaucracy together. “The positive side could be that elected ministers are accessible and listen to ideas,” a senior civil servant said. “But it’s also true that some elected ministers were fairly inexperienced with limited leadership quality.”

RCSC is an independent and apolitical body, but independence still remains a question.  Civil servants say it depends on how bold the RCSC or the head of bureaucracy is. 

“But remember, secretaries were removed and transferred, Committee of Secretaries was dissolved,” a civil servant said.

In its annual report in 2019, RCSC reported that keeping the civil service apolitical was critical to provide good governance and for a robust nation-building process.

“However, apolitical civil service does not mean non-responsiveness. The civil service must work together with the government of the day to achieve national goals,” the commission’s report stated.


Job and transfer mismatch

An old issue that has gripped the civil service is the thinking that there is a mismatch of jobs and “skills,” which many believe impacts performance.  An example, a civil servant related, is of a live science graduate getting through the civil service entry examination and pursuing Post Graduate Diploma in Public Administration and becoming a planning officer in the trade ministry where he starts learning basic economics.

While posts and educational background are always debated, many said that there was a problem of concrete professional pathways in the civil service, and many training or resources to train professionals are wasted when, in the end, they are allowed to move to unrelated professions.

“Both expertise and contribution are wasted, but it isn’t his fault. The system groomed him like this,” a civil servant said. “This could also be because of “network” where you’re given jobs because you know the officer of that particular office,” said a former civil servant, who resigned after he was transferred to another office for not agreeing with his boss’s idea.

Civil servants describe this practice as rampant and ingrained in the system, where someone is sent for professional training in one field but lands in a different job in different areas. “From ESP level to executive, no one is bothered about their job description.”

Can we still mend/ reform CS?

The RCSC, labour ministry, education ministry, and Royal University of Bhutan have to work in close coordination to align the type of jobs required for the next 10 years, align the curriculum as per the job requirement and provide courses to that effect, civil servants say.

“Complex tools like PE rating, IWP and APA, leadership feedback system, at best only allow experimentations possible without any impact. THey, in fact, complicate the process of standardisation,” one said. “Instead of providing entitlements or promotion automatically, it needs to be strategic.”

A relook into long-term studies and conditions was also suggested because the returning officials have often become junior to their colleagues.  Some indicate a need for date documentation of political interference to held accountability.

Many strongly suggested there should be an immediate hire and fire system of recruitment, re-think on the requirement of some of the jobs that have become irrelevant with innovations in technologies, and privatise them if need be.  There is a need to undertake research instead of adopting a system from abroad.

Some called for change in the automatic recognition and civil service awards.  There is also a need for harsher punishment from top to down for official misconduct.

“Our way of application of law and justice is such that there’s hesitance and resistance based on who that person is, what position he or she holds, and what background they come from,” a civil servant said.

Civil servants shared that there is a need to look into giving leadership roles to the capable and deserving civil servant, protection of skills and expertise, formation of technical advisors to the Cabinet and the RCSC, and taking the leadership feedback system seriously.