Ten years on: Did the PCS (really) fail?

The Position Classification System (PCS) was a “mistake” and it has weakened the civil service with its “rules and regulations”!

This was part of the statement made by the then Prime Minister to a gathering of senior civil servants in February 2009. For those of us who were involved in the formulation of the PCS, the sharp criticism towards the PCS was surprising. It was exactly 10 years ago, in December 2005, when a group of us from the RCSC Secretariat presented the PCS Policy Document to the Council of Cabinet Ministers (CCM) seeking its approval.

In hindsight, we did make some mistakes with the PCS. For a start, we hadn’t sought the views of one of the main stakeholders of the reform, i.e. the civil servants. But there were other things we thought we did right. For example, we spent close to five years working through variations of the reform based on international best practices. So while we did not expect the implementation of PCS to be smooth sailing, we also did not expect it to be a total disaster.

Partly because of this severe negative reaction to the PCS, I was prompted to conduct a survey asking civil servants what they thought of the PCS in 2011. The result was quite surprising: out of the 245 civil servants who responded to the survey, 51% had a positive perception of the PCS as opposed to 18% who had a negative perception (the rest were neutral in their views). Although these results threw me off a bit (especially for my own research purposes), it was a pleasant surprise to know that everything wasn’t entirely wrong with the PCS.

For those unfamiliar with the PCS as a policy, it was a comprehensive set of reform that included five components: classification of position and occupational groups; recruitment, selection and promotion system; human resource development; performance management system; and remuneration and benefits. Of the five components, the CCM did not approve the fifth component, i.e. the remuneration and benefits, as they were concerned about the possible financial implications.

After the initial surprise with the results of the survey, unpacking each of the components of the PCS revealed different dynamics that affected their implementation and outcome. For instance, the classification of positions and occupational groups component, on the one hand, brought about uniformity of grades and set standards.

On the other hand, the quality of the job descriptions was poor and certain positions were not classified. Similarly the recruitment, selection and promotion component, on the positive side, lead to a fair and transparent system of selection. On the negative side, there was a loss of professionalism, particularly with civil servants jumping from the specialist to the executive categories.

The human resource development component, in general, allowed civil servants to upgrade their qualifications. Where there were major issues with the PCS was the performance management system component. Some of the main problems and challenges were in identifying performance targets and objectively evaluating performance.

To be fair to the critics of PCS, an important variable that affects the perception of a reform is time. Reforms normally take time before they settle in. Perhaps, five years into the reform is what it took for the PCS to settle and establish what worked and what didn’t. Moving away from the blame game, what is important now is to learn from the mistakes and to identify a way forward. Definitely, some things to learn from the PCS is to get the buy-in of the stakeholders before the reform is implemented. The other thing to keep in mind is to set in place clear change management strategies. Much of the problems with the PCS, initially, were in the poor management of the transition process from the Cadre System.

The way forward: I have had the opportunity to share with a wide range of audience, which included the commissioners of the RCSC—past and present—findings from my research. I recommended a couple of short- and long-term strategies. An area that needs immediate attention is in re-working the classification system to avoid stagnation for those in the Supervisory and Support Position (S) category.

At present the only option for those in the S category to avoid getting stuck at the S1 level is to move to the Professional and Management category by upgrading their qualification and then sitting for the civil service examinations. This results in the loss of skilled people who are actually on the frontline providing essential services. Reverting back to a Cadre System format that allowed those in the Administrative Support Cadre (equivalent to the S category in the PCS) to rise to Grade 6 (equivalent to P3 in the PCS) is an option to consider. To some extent, the RCSC has started working on redressing this, which is the right move.

The second area that needs to be addressed is the performance management system. By current standards of performance, Bhutan has an ‘outstanding’ civil service, where almost 80% of Bhutanese civil servants receive ‘outstanding evaluations’. It is safe to conclude that this is not a true reflection of reality. While there are a couple of ways to work around the performance management system, these changes must reflect broader societal and cultural values. One of the senior managers I interviewed aptly described the problem with performance management as a case of “compassion misplaced”. On compassion grounds, largely as a result of living in a small and collective society, objective evaluations are difficult to implement.

Another case that is symptomatic of a deeper societal issue is the loss of professionalism when specialists move to the executive category, oftentimes at the cost of seniority and position. The people making the move are not to be blamed. Rather, it is in the incentive structures and the perception of power and authority by society where the root of the problem lies. This needs to be understood, first, before making any changes.

But the most important exercise that the RCSC needs to undertake is a visioning exercise to determine its role in the near future. It needs to ask itself, and the civil servants too, what sort of a civil service commission is required for Bhutan. Without such a vision, other reforms, such as granting autonomy to organizations, can in fact be detrimental.

An issue that was raised to me whilst presenting my research finding was: what about reforms such as ‘small and compact’ government. With respect to a small and compact civil service, the RCSC needs to bear this in mind: if the government were to grant autonomy to schools, and subsequently to those in the Education and Training Services major occupational group, the civil service’s size will drastically reduce by almost 30%. If teachers are granted autonomy, doctors and nurses will be next. Thus having a small and compact civil service is easy to achieve through the policy of granting autonomy to organizations and occupational groups.

With autonomy, one has to be mindful that it is only autonomy from the RCSC where organizations have more discretion over personnel and human resource actions. However, financially, these organizations are still dependent on the government. Without financial autonomy, there isn’t too much room to exercise other forms of autonomy.

In fact being a part of the civil service makes it easier to access funds and other benefits. I suppose the bigger question to ask here is: why are organizations willing to risk the benefits and not wanting to be a part of RCSC? The answer to this question is what the RCSC needs to determine, and determine fast!

Lhawang Ugyel

(Previously worked for the RCSC Secretariat) 

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