One key premise on which Bhutan has embarked on a transformation journey is the belief that the proverbial slow and steady may not always win the race, not least in the age of unprecedented change that we are witnessing, and grappling with, today. The biggest fear is that if we are slow and oblivious in today’s day and age of what is happening around us, we will be left behind as a country. His Majesty has repeatedly emphasized the need to be agile, adaptive, and creative to thrive in the 21st century.
One thing we must all acknowledge, particularly in the public service, is that we are slow, in every sense of the word. And we won’t likely get very far in promoting agility unless we, as individuals and organizations, acknowledge that simple fact in the first place. In my view, this is one shortcoming that the current reforms seek to address, and rightly so, given that our new vision is to become a self-reliant and developed country within the shortest timeframe.
The government and its machinery, particularly the bureaucracy, are not the only entities that make up a country, or make it move. But the speed at which almost everything else moves is inevitably determined by the speed at which the government and its machinery operate. For example, we have always emphasized the importance of the private sector and how it provides the engine of growth, but we also know that our ‘ease of doing business’ ranking is 89th among 190 countries. Among the best-rated are countries like New Zealand, Singapore and Denmark.
During the ninth RIGSS anniversary lecture series last October, an international (anti)corruption expert pointed out that it takes 77 days to register a property and 150 days to obtain a construction permit in Bhutan as of 2019. High red-tapism, cumbersome procedures and long turnaround time not only frustrate service-seekers but make public servants prone to bribery and corruption.
Public grievances on slow services, apathetic public servants and long waiting time are commonplace. For the longest time, we have relied more on personal networks and relationships to get things done than on fair and dependable systems. In fact, many public servants blame the “system” to justify their inability or unwillingness to serve their clients on time. It is about time that we take accountability for the systems we develop and learn to fix them no sooner than we realise they aren’t serving the purpose in the manner intended. Public servants must be empathic to be more agile, the service-giver must view and experience the world from the shoes of the service-seeker.
I once visited a remote village where the people were given a community corn mill by the government but the mill has not been functioning for over a year. The villagers told me that some nuts and bolts had worn out and a relevant public servant in the district had taken the parts to get new ones. While they waited in hope for the parts to arrive someday, if at all, they were back to their “rangthas” (corn grinding millstones). The staple food in that village was corn.
Service-seekers are oftentimes at the mercy of public servants, their systems, and many one-size-fits-all rules some of which are redundant and cumbersome in modern-day context yet we guard and follow them dutifully. With many public servants leaving the system, the situation for service-seekers will get worse if those who remain are not agile enough to adapt; we are already beginning to see the signs and feel the brunt. But this is not some insurmountable problem, provided we recognise, acknowledge and adjust accordingly. And we need to do it fast. This is where the current reforms, particularly in the civil service, assume paramount importance. It should make our public servants more agile, our organizations nimbler and our systems more tech-driven, equitable and dependable.
A McKinsey report on the impact of agility highlights five key areas that form an effective, stable backbone in organizations that were successful in bringing about agile transformations – strategy, structure, process, people and technology. It also highlights the role of leadership in driving agility in people and systems; it states “our research clearly shows that following an unstructured, overly explorative, and bottom-up approach without a clear direction and leadership commitment hurts the chances of success [of agile organizational transformation]”. The report highlights the need for senior leaders to “role-model behaviors and mindset changes and dedicate sufficient time to the transformation”.
We need to bring about that paradigm shift in our mindset and behaviors, and our outlook on public policy and public service for the reforms we are undertake to bring about the desired impacts. Public-sector leaders need to build organizational cultures where we treat service-seekers with respect and celebrate public service as a higher calling to measure up to. We need to sit down with our employees to honestly investigate ourselves, our rules and our systems and figure out ways to be more agile and nimble in our work, all the way with our customers (generally our citizens) in mind.
We also need to ask questions that seek to promote agility. For example, can some of our public services be rendered round the clock, as the hospitals do; can we have sprint planning and daily stand-up meetings; can teams work together across different functions instead of working in silos; can e-mails and WhatsApp messages be accepted in place of letters typed on official letter pads; can we provide our mobile phone numbers on websites and email addresses etc. We need to apply agile practices in our workplaces so that work gets done faster.
I recall doing an exercise in my previous organization some thirteen years ago where the turn-around time for a particular service was reduced from months (or years in some cases) to just four working days. All it took was some honest conversations and the willingness to work a little harder, in the interest of the larger public.
The current reforms in the country provide leaders and public servants alike with an unprecedented opportunity to change the public service system in Bhutan like never before – to make it more agile and nimble, adaptive and innovative, proud and professional, sensitive to societal needs, and most importantly, service-oriented. If each one of us as public servants indulges in the current transformation process with our heart and soul, with honesty and integrity, with hope and humility, with the willingness to work hard and sacrifice comfort, and most importantly, with faith in the vision and leadership of His Majesty The King, we can make Bhutan’s public service world-class. That will be crucial for us to realise our vision of becoming a developed country in the shortest timeframe.
But let us first acknowledge that we need to think and act a little faster in our public service; we need to be more agile and nimble as individuals and organizations. Remember, the speed at which everything else moves in a country is inevitably determined by the speed at which the government and public service operate. The reforms give us the opportunity to set a new standard, and a new example, in public service.
The writer is the director of the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies and the views expressed in this article are his own