Civil service has been under the scanner for some time. More so, after the call for its reforms from the highest level. Most of us are familiar with the poor performance of the civil service. But to be fair, the civil service has risen to the occasion, especially in times of national distress or at critical junctures. Civil service is a reflection of ourselves; civil servants are people just like you and me, and those who manage it are no different. So, its performance mirrors the Bhutanese society at large.

I am sure you must have approached many offices for getting your work done at different times. Your experience must have been mixed, some good, others depressing. How many times did you have to visit the same office or furnish them with various information to complete your work? If you were able to use your connections, your job would have been done faster. But the point is that one should be able to get his/her work done without having to pull strings or, in other words, as a matter of right. As citizens, we expect a prompt service without us having to present our credentials.

Let me recount an instance that I faced some years back. I needed an authorisation letter from an office. When I approached the staff concerned, he directed me to produce a supporting letter from another office which I promptly did. He then asked me for some other documents with which I complied again. He could have of course asked me for these documents when I first met him so that I could have saved time. Still then, he cited some other obscure requirement for me to fulfil and blamed me for my own mistake. I thought that was too much of a red tape for me to swallow. So, I raised my voice demanding that I be allowed to meet his Dasho. After some altercations, he realised that I was firm in my demand and I would not leave his office without an answer. He then told me to come the next day to pick up the letter! It took me four days to complete this simple work. And the irony is that this may be considered fast by many!

This is just one example of harassment. I am sure that the readers will have many similar experiences to share.

What I am discussing may sound trivial, but it is not. We expect efficient service regardless of the offices we approach. It is our right and we are not asking for too much, just a friendly conversation and a definitive answer from the dealing official or staff. The civil servants have to fulfil their mandates and be more transparent by providing public information. Journalists have been reminding us the difficulties they face in obtaining information from the bureaucracy. Thanks to the use of information and communication technology; most organisations maintain their websites, but sadly, they are not updated in time.

Several other problems can be mentioned – the lack of transparency within an office itself. One hand does not know what the other is doing. And this is across most organisations. Co-ordination within an office is very poor, let alone between offices. The subordinate staffs are neither sufficiently trained nor briefed by their superiors. Or, the acquired training of staff does not translate into improved results. The delegation of responsibility is low. So, junior staff cannot take even the simplest of decisions. They have to consult their bosses, who are often out of stations or busy in meetings. Hence, it is not just the head of the office whose performance must improve, but of every civil servant in an organization! How will the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) ensure this?

It is of course undeniable that the foresight and competence of the office head should make a difference, provided he/she is willing to take calculated risks and make decisions instead of hiding under the shadow of institutional limitations. Yes, institutional rules exist, and are needed for good governance. But such rules have to be interpreted and applied in the broader interest of the society, and not become rigid obstacles. If rules become hurdles, they must be changed. We need civil servants to cater to the needs of an increasingly informed, and fast changing democratic society.

Severing the services of 44 civil servants on the ground of mediocrity is a highly significant move and big news for a close-knit society like ours. We should neither celebrate the occasion nor be distressed by it, as even those who ‘passed’ this time have to prove their grit. And those who are leaving should bear no grudge or ill-will against the establishment. After all, they receive two years of their salaries and benefits. They ought to be satisfied with their past contributions to the best of their abilities. They will now find more time and new opportunities to pursue their interests and try something new. They will realize that a new world exists for them beyond the civil service if they are prepared to explore. We owe our best wishes to all of them.

The challenge for the RCSC is to prove that the civil service will be more professional and efficient in the coming years, able to shoulder new and emerging challenges. There is no better organization than the RCSC itself to lead by examples. Its view that the line organizations should share the burden of reforms is well taken; yet, it cannot expect them to do full justice as they have their own responsibilities. RCSC has to own its prime responsibility to shape the civil service that is suited to Bhutan’s needs in the 21st century.

Let us hope that a new chapter in civil service begins in Spring 2022!

Contributed by 

Achyut Bhandari