People are generally surprised by my remarks that the Nepali bureaucracy has probably reformed more than the private sector. Yes, this claim is debatable but it is important to look into how the bureaucracy has changed over the last two decades. People can still recall how till the late 90s, ministries had foreign advisors, who at times wrote emails for bureaucrats and practically ran the ministry. Today, many bureaucrats have reformed the way they work and communicate.
To me, they seem to have reformed more than some folks in the private sector. I find it interesting to recall what the offices of private sector folks looked like in the early and mid-90s and how much they have changed now, while also observing how government offices have changed over the same period of time. This is just to see things from the perspective of positive change, which we often tend to ignore.
Despite the long years of political instability, there have been positive changes in the bureaucracy. We are proud of many bureaucrats, like the erstwhile Rameshwor Khanal, who stood his ground, and secretaries like Krishna Gyawali and Kishore Thapa, who provide a good face to the ministries they operate in. The way the Election Commission conducted free and fair elections in record time also demonstrates how efficiency can be delivered if demanded of the bureaucracy.
The new breed of government officials across many ministries make one feel good, when you hear them presenting papers at international conferences or meeting dignitaries. Furthermore, Nepal’s performance towards meeting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) illustrates that despite all the problems, we have progressed, as there is a silent set of people who are oiling the wheels. Yes, change is happening but it needs acceleration.
The way political parties transferred bureaucrats every time they came to power resulted in one of the most unstable times for the bureaucracy. It made people very resistant when they were required to take decisions on important matters. The political masters working in conjunction with individual interests presided over transfers and government officials were actually pushed to tow party lines. This turned people myopic, only looking at the next few months rather than envisioning five to ten year plans and working accordingly.
In this chaos, there was little focus on ways to improve operational efficiencies, be it through automating the way papers move within ministries, the use of electronic interfaces for the general public to submit documents or doing away with antiquated systems like affixing postal stamps on applications or stamping documents after signing them. However, the current delivery of passports is a good example of how the system can be made user-friendly and also reduce the margin of error. Similar initiatives can be taken, like providing electronic visas online to reduce hassles at immigration or making land records electronic so that opportunities for corruption are minimised.
Serving public servants
Nepali bureaucrats, over the years, have been fortunate to get global exposure. While some folks have used this opportunity to learn, there are others who used these paid vacations for activities that are best not discussed. This global exposure has given them confidence. But the uncertainty of their tenure has affected their risk-taking abilities to try something new. However, there are people who are giving it a try, be it the Office of the Company Registrar trying to digitise document submission by doing away with physical paper submission or people who are mooting to implement the ambitious National Identity Document programme.
The issue with the bureaucracy is to be able to have, perhaps, a long-term plan on how it can be made more efficient, rewarded for its performance, made responsible as well as accountable and given room to take more risks. For instance, it is now important to examine why there should be people to carry documents from one room to the other instead of setting up electronic systems. Why is it important that someone is just there to serve tea and what will happen to one’s ego if one just pours a glass of water from a jug or bottle for a guest? How can we make people aware of personal hygiene, so that what they practice at home is implemented in offices as well? Can every ministry have a vehicle management system? And how can accountability be built into the management of vehicles? There are many small things that can be started that do not require a new constitution to be written.
The bulk of the people in today’s bureaucracy came through a competitive process that has definitely reformed since twenty years ago. There is a sense of pride in what they do. What they require is further impetus in developing their soft skills, be it presentation or communication. They need support to be able to build a system that is based on rewarding performance, rather than loyalty. There are many who are willing to push for this change; it is not only for the legislators to provide them the platform, but also for citizens to demand this change. It is time for all of us to work together to bring about this positive change.