His Majesty The King’s address to the nation on 17th December 2020, announcing the issuance of the Royal Decree for ‘civil service reforms’, sounded like music to many. If social media posts were anything to go by, civil servants felt empowered and emboldened as their posts covering grievances and shortcomings in the civil service machinery suggested. Did we realise and acknowledge that we were also part of the system that we complained about? Already into the sixth month after the Royal address, did we try correcting certain things we could do as individuals? Or are we waiting for comprehensive reforms to be introduced, recommended by the pronounced Civil Service Reform Council?
What is the status of the Reform Council then? Sectoral initiatives seeking feedback from civil servants for reforms are underway. This raises a couple of questions. How much of help will it be to rely singly on ‘insider’ perspectives? Besides overall governance fluidity, the Royal Kasho states that 35 per cent of services delivered were between and amongst government agencies. How would reform initiatives enhance services of the civil service to its key service recipients - the people? On that premise, the reform ought to address both civil service administration as well as service delivery.
‘Small, compact and efficient Civil Service’ is the rhetoric of Bhutan’s civil service. However, with the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC) being the largest employer and civil servants to population ratio of 1:25 (2017 figures), the smallness has been questioned. Recruitment, retention and promotion are integral parts of civil service administration. Among others, standard routine promotions are alleged to be breeding complacency. For example, if 20 officers are recruited, all those 20 get their first promotion after five years of service. Do they have equal competencies and have performed equally well? The practice of meritorious promotion in itself has a conceptual shortcoming. Promotion, by definition, suggests that it should be based on merit. Thus, a performance-based promotion system should be instituted. Job responsibilities also need to be revisited. Professionals having to perform the same job before and after their promotions and post-graduate studies are replete. Are our Terms of Reference (ToRs) progressive enough? The current approach of ‘forced ranking’ needs to be revisited. And performance evaluation would be more representative and comprehensive by adopting a ‘360 degree’ approach.
The increased proportion of civil servants vis-a-vis the population questions the very underlying principle of small and compact civil service. Among others, the creation of specific posts for certain lines of work that can otherwise be managed by general civil service is one factor. Given that agriculture is the main economic activity in villages, and infrastructure development the arteries of growth, economic activities can be coordinated by Dzongkhag Engineers and Agriculture Officers. Is there a need for an Economic Development Officer? It is observed that the Beautification Officers’ work, by and large, confines to procurement. Further, is there a need for specialists at micro-units such as Post Production Officer and Horticulture Officer? Will there be a Pruning Officer in the distant future? Can an Agriculture Officer multi-task by building capacities? The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) has the largest number of personnel at 2,778 across agencies (Statistical Yearbook 2020), including constitutional and autonomous agencies. Having specialists (preferably from different professional backgrounds) in the central agency (RCSC) would help determine human resource audits, including creating new positions, capacity building, and syncretic discourse, among others.
Concerning the creation of new positions, the establishment of new small agencies has been observed. In an attempt to specialise and cater to specific target groups, concomitant inability to collaborate has meant delays in service delivery. Beyond this, it has entailed extra administrative costs in terms of rentals and utilities. Therefore, agencies with similar mandates and responsibilities need to be merged. The focus needs to be on strengthening human resources rather than creating a separate agency. Having similar mandates might have implications on budget proposal and allocation, further widening the differences adding problems to a system that already lacks collaboration.
The pursuit of institutional autonomy has, unfortunately, encouraged organisational silos and compartmentalisation. On the other hand, the current approach of ‘parent agency’ affects the officials in the working agency in terms of capacity building and a sense of belonging. Placing all Planning Officers under the Gross National Happiness Commission and Information Communications Technology (ICT) Officers under the Department of Information Technology and Telecom (DITT) needs to be reconsidered. It is argued that the employing agency best knows the needs of employees but has a limited role in human resource management. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Professional support and growth are crucial for employee motivation and institutional growth. However, mentor-mentee relationships are observed to be lacking. As a result, employee motivation, particularly for new recruits and entry-level professionals, is met with stumbling blocks right from the start. Instead, incidents of rigid hierarchical work culture and alleged ‘bureaucratic harassment’ are being shared. With a weak mentor-mentee relationship, succession planning is left on the margins affecting ‘institution building’. To an extent, institution building has come to mean ‘massive office building’ for some. It is not surprising that the biggest ‘modern’ concrete buildings in Thimphu today are built to house government offices. Ideally, institution building should entail capacity building with an emphasis on succession planning. In a way, it would also help address issues of ‘indispensability’. Thus, mentor-mentee culture needs to be built and integrated across the civil service machinery.
Recruitment, promotion and institutional building should all gear towards one goal - public service delivery. However, with 35 per cent of services delivered being inter-agency, ‘people-centric service’ has remained more of a rhetoric than reality. Turn-around time (TAT) with strong compliance and accountability measures should be in place. This initiative must link to a performance-based promotion and reward system approach, which would serve two purposes. First, it will streamline and strengthen service delivery procedures. Second, it will help in differentiating performing and non-performing employees. This should be complemented with the delegation of responsibilities. For example, instances of delays in issuing a timber/firewood permit in the absence of the Chief Forestry Officer are numerous. Other examples of clients having to go from one door to another just to deliver a letter are aplenty. Some would even be made to return in the afternoon or the following day. On the other extreme, practices of a supervisor delegating an irrelevant and unqualified officer to sanction works amounting to millions of ngultrums are also abundant. While there are existing rules governing delegation, they need to be revisited, and implementation should be overseen/approved by a respective superior.
We believe that His Majesty The King issued the Royal Kasho acknowledging these concerns. Among others, the Kasho requires a need to establish a time-bound Civil Service Reform Council. While the Council is apparently not formed, consultations are underway, engaging different tiers of the civil service. Such consultations aren’t new or the first of their kind. RCSC conducts similar exercises to revise Bhutan Civil Rules and Regulations (BCSR) once every four years. In that light, consultations need to engage service recipients, including people at the grassroots, because they know how best to deliver the services. Engaging former civil servants who resigned may also help shed light on the retention of high performers. To this end, it is vital to have a dedicated, time-bound Council that could reach out to all relevant stakeholders and offer a concrete roadmap towards civil service reforms. Without a clear path forward, the ongoing consultations within existing public servants will unnecessarily limit the scope of reforms to that of earlier initiatives.