Lack of career mobility, inadequate salary, better opportunities and red tape, among others are the reasons

Rinzin Wangchuk

For once, there is more parking space than cars at the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) complex, Thimphu. This may be a joke to indicate the number of civil servants quitting their jobs, but civil servants are leaving service – in droves.

Once the most preferred job for Bhutanese, the RCSC now seems to be losing human resources at an alarming rate. About 1,488 civil servants resigned voluntarily in just one year, last year.

At the RCSC parking lot, a civil servant said that the parking joke is not funny. “It was difficult to get a parking space until recently,” he said.

The RCSC’s annual report 2020-2021 states that there are 31,267 civil servants as of June 2021 with a civil servant-to-population ratio of 1:24, relatively higher than many other countries.

However, the exodus of civil servants started following the relaxation of Covid-19 and the reopening of international borders in Australia and Canada. Some also pointed out that the fear and job insecurity provoked civil servants to leave the system after the RCSC managed out 47 executives in March last year.

The mass resignation of civil servants, especially mid-level professionals and critical employees, is happening when the civil service is going through a period of reform and transformation, according to some observers. “We are hearing offices like the Department of Revenue and Customs (DRC), Royal Monetary Authority and other agencies are just left with a few employees. This could affect the delivery of public services,” one said.

The factors leading to mass resignation

In October 2021, Researcher Sangay Wangdi with the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies (CBS) conducted a study on Bhutanese civil servants leaving for Australia and their motivation to return. The study found that lack of career mobility, the prospect of having better experience or exposure outside, inadequate salary and lack of proper feedback in the system were the main factors contributing to the mass resignation of civil servants.

Although the number of resignations from civil service is not at an irreplaceable rate in Bhutan, civil servants turnover is still an issue as it causes disruption to the line of services provided and the productivity of an organisation. “It has been an ever-increasing trend for civil servants to resign and leave for Australia,” the study found.

According to records maintained by RCSC, in the last five years, 1,202 civil servants resigned while on extraordinary leave (EoL) and another 90 civil servants resigned while undergoing Long-term Training (LTT) outside Bhutan. As of October 2021, there were 285 civil servants on EoL and 801 civil servants undergoing LTT.

Sangay Wangdi’s study stated that losing experienced employees irrespective of number or rate, especially in the case of civil service where a considerable number of employees resign while on EoL or undergoing LTT will have a huge impact on the organisation both functionally and economically.

“Since employees leaving an organisation in any number impacts the productivity and functionality of the organisation, it is imperative for organisations to take preventive measures to stop employees from voluntarily quitting the work.”

The study found that Bhutanese civil servants initially go to Australia for studies. However, not many or rather almost all of them, do not return home after the completion of their studies. “They ultimately resign from the civil service to prolong their stay in Australia,” it stated.

The ultimate factor that attracts many Bhutanese civil servants to Australia, according to study, could be the earning opportunities as 67 percent of the respondents reported to be earning above Nu 200,000 a month with 32 percent of them earning even more than Nu 300,000 a month in Australia.

While many attributed their decision to resign from the civil service to dissatisfaction at work due to one or another reason, 79 percent of them were satisfied with the work they do in Australia. On comparing the level of work satisfaction between male and female, males were found to be more satisfied compared to their female counterparts.

Motivation to return

More than half of the respondents said that they would consider returning to Bhutan if they are allowed to re-enter into civil service.  Some said a better earning opportunity either in private entrepreneurship or government sectors would encourage them to return.

They also said that the current system of employee rating discourages them as the favourite employees, and not the best employees get higher rates. Some said that the existence of favouritism and nepotism in the system combined with authoritative decision-making processes were some factors that demotivate them.

Some even mentioned that they left for Australia on self-expenses by availing loans from financial institutions and they had to prolong their stay to recoup the expenditure incurred and the debts.

They are afraid that they would remain workless if they returned home. Some suggested that it would be beneficial to the government if they were allowed to get back into work, especially in civil service as they would be able to add value to the system through the experience and exposure they had while in Australia.

The challenges

Some civil servants who resigned to go to Australia said that they cannot afford to work in the civil service due to the rising cost of living, a lack of hope for individual prosperity and financial wellbeing. “I cannot afford to send my son even with a tuition fee of Nu 70,000 in private school,” a civil servant in his late 30s who is leaving for Australia with his wife next month, said.

Foreign Affairs and External Trade Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, during a recent press conference, said, the number of Bhutanese leaving the country is worrying, but not alarming. “However, if the current trend continues for the next two to three years, we need to resort to a radical approach,” he said.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering also agreed that Bhutanese are going abroad because of inflation, low salary and fewer opportunities, among others in the country. “Public servants in Bhutan are paid very low compared with those in other countries,” he said.

As per the record maintained by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, there are about 10,911 Bhutanese in Australia today. However, people in Australia said that the total number of Bhutanese will be more since Perth alone will have more than 12,000 Bhutanese. “The total number should be multiplied by two since the dependents are not registered with the universities,” a former teacher said.

Meanwhile, 15 companies under the Druk Holding and Investments (DHI) and 38 State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are also reportedly facing an acute shortage of critical manpower due to a high attrition rate.