Any authority figure be it a king or queen, democrat or dictator, the state or the kingdom, the president or the prime minister yesterday, today or tomorrow wields power through the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats who are perceived to be omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent by citizens who fear them, respect them, obey them but, behind their backs, decry them also. They are the destiny of a country, the rules and regulations that parliament passes are interpreted, executed and implemented by them. Growth and prosperity of a country is in direct proportion to their agility, dynamism, honesty, integrity and, above all, the competency that they show in carrying out in true spirit the mandates of those acts which are meant for the welfare of the people.
Though changes have happened to the image of bureaucrats in the western world, in the developing countries like Nepal their image still persists that of a commander who in the words of the Bible says to a man, “to go and he goeth and to another come and he cometh and to another do this and he doeth it”.
Nepal has approximately 300,000 bureaucrats excluding the army manning central, provincial and local governments under different ministries, directorates, offices and other governmental institutions such as hospitals, schools and public sector undertakings (PSUs) etc scattered all over the country at different levels of hierarchy. For a population of 29.90 million of which approximately 10 million resides and works across the border or overseas, the average of one bureaucrat per 60 citizens is quite high. This may perhaps be attributed to our geographical terrain and still primitive administrative structures.
Too many people in governance have too much discretion, adhocism, arbitrariness, dominance and discrimination. The concept of least government and more governance is defeated as systems collapse, more interference at every step, and person to person interface impedes rather than facilitates delivery of welfare benefits to the citizens especially the lower income group. It is an irony that the supply of more bureaucrats has, instead of strengthening the welfare state, brought about inefficiencies in the whole distributive system. More the merrier has no merit in this case; rather small will be more beautiful. But the reverse is happening. Instead of shrinking the size of the bureaucracy, the present coalition government, in order to be accommodative and inclusive, is going beyond the limits set by the constitution, for the number of ministries are being thrown to the winds thereby adding more and more officials to the already inflated bureaucracy size. Facing not only a liquidity crunch but also revenue resources crunch to meet committed expenditure on general administration and payment of accrued interest, adding to the size of bureaucracy is definitely suicidal in the long run. The burden of giving pensions to people when they retire will become so enormous that the major chunk of revenue will have to be set aside for the purpose depriving the other pressing needs for development.
The role of a bureaucrat in today’s modern set-up and the emerging new concept of a welfare state is drastically changing. Almost all the governments in at least the SAARC region lament about the inadequacy of their bureaucrats to meet the new challenge. However, the political dispensation, though aware of the need to reform, has done little in this direction as, in my opinion, the inherited legacy from the British suits them more for furtherance of their political grip. It is observed that while the British and other Western governments have, realising the necessity for reforms, totally overhauled their bureaucracy, we are still languishing with the old set-ups without any urgency to reform, maybe because the behaviour of the masses for which the bureaucracy is needed remains unchanged.
One defining feature of any political leadership at any time is to surround oneself with public servants who are blindly loyal to them as they, being perennially insecure, are intolerant of criticism. Loyal numbers give them confidence but merit threatens them.
There are many issues and challenges confronting bureaucracy in Nepal as elsewhere. A socially, economically and politically changed Nepal needs a changed contemporary administrative set-up and it has to be accepted by our political leaders and this issue has to come to the centre stage. Today’s issues are changed, tools are different, the target is shifting and the citizens are more demanding and conscious. In this context, have we taken stock of or audited our present and future requirement of bureaucrats say a decade ahead? Can we safely presume that the type of manpower that we shall need will be available or they will be eager to join the public service?
It may also happen that in absence of the requisite skills and competence many of our projects will be stalled. Already many of our projects are suffering the non-availability of personnel and the situation may worsen. To assume that the existing educational system will supply the right quality of manpower to govern will perhaps be hoping against hope. We shall have to take exclusive steps not only to groom the right manpower but also to attract and retain them in the public services. It will be a sad day if for lack of qualified bureaucrats, we either abandon projects, or poorly manage the welfare activities or cannot undertake many of our regulatory functions which are imperative for checks and balances on their own. It is on record that many smaller countries of the world have contracted or out sourced many of their state functions to professionals from outside, which we can avoid if the agenda for reforms are taken up in the right earnest way immediately.
The Covid-19 pandemic witnessed a cataclysmic failure of bureaucrats to reach out to the masses in time in terms of men, materials, medicines and mobility. Over the last five years, Nepal has also been a victim of natural disasters such as earthquake, floods, landslides, droughts etc along with the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of our landlockedness we frequently face disruption in supplies of essential goods. These natural and man-made disasters are becoming too frequent and it is predicted that with the slow erosion of the WTO system of trade, an importing country like Nepal may face such calamities too many times. Climate change is impacting not only how we do our farming but also food security, warehousing, agricultural productivity, real estate etc, the bulwark of Nepal’s economy. These happenings demand a new set of strategies, the old strategies are no longer relevant; they have started giving diminishing returns.
In order to strategise afresh, a new set of globally exposed strategists are called for who not only can put forward fresh creative innovative ideas but more importantly persuade their political masters to let them attempt a paradigm shift. So long as the bureaucrats cling to their political affiliations they will not be able to project the right futuristic strategies. None of the political systems, right or left, are perfect and in today’s global environment it is the amalgamation of multiple ideas that works, which only a neutral bureaucrat can prescribe. So far, it is experienced that most of the bureaucrats are averse to change, rather they resist. It is for the political system to incentivize the bureaucrats to come out of their cocoons and be more innovative, creative and assertive. Ideas and performance have to be the major criterion for their career enhancement.
It is unfortunate that bureaucracy all over the world and especially in developing countries is denounced for its red tapism and corruption. The common man avoids them because “they (paraphrasing Shakespeare) dressed in the garb of authority plays such dirty and foul tricks with the people that even the angel among them have no choice but to weep”. This characteristic disapproval is not of recent origin. Edmund Burke while speaking in the British Parliament in 1780 on bureaucracy said: “Corrupt influence which is itself the perennial spring of all prodigality and of all disorder which load us more than a million of debt which takes away vigour from our arms, wisdom from our councils and every shadow of authority and credit from the most vulnerable parts of our constitution”.
We find that mass protests suddenly have surged in most countries and this reflects disenchantment not with the political system but more with the individual bureaucrat who is in the seat of power.
This institution of bureaucracy dates back almost 2500 years when Chinese emperors mandated their would-be public servants to sit for exams on certain subjects relating to state craft including morality. In Hindu shastras also, the qualification needed to be eligible for public service has been much stressed. In the Mahabharata epic, Bhishma, the grand patriarch of the Kuru dynasty, while discoursing with Yudhistira, dwells elaborately on the role of bureaucrats for a king to be successful and be loved by his subject. The British, Dutch, French, Spanish, Portuguese, all colonial powers, nurtured an exclusive cadre of administrators with proper training and exams to rule their colonies. In Nepal we have a similar system of “Loksewa Aayog” which co-ordinates, selects and organises the bureaucracy for public service, while the administrative staff college further trains them for higher responsibilities. Training in house and abroad is supposed to further enhance their competency. But despite these efforts, Nepal’s bureaucracy so far has earned only the wrath of the common man because they have failed to meet their aspirations.
I firmly believe that our bureaucrats are more sinned against than sinning. On an average they are equally good, dedicated, effective as in any other country. In times of crisis and calamities they have shown their high standard of mettle and moral. They fail because of political interference which denies them their authority to act as per the merit of the issue. Since their career hangs on political good will they have no choice but to be the ‘yesman’ of their political masters. Appointments, transfers, promotions are all within their discretionary powers so the bureaucrats have to toe their line. The present system of “Bhag Banda” has added fuel to the fire.
Though our constitution, as elsewhere, has separated three wings of the government so that they can function independently with checks and balances against them, in effect this separation has tended to overlap and blur because of the nexus that has been made to develop at the initiative of the political leadership, and in this nexus, even the bureaucrats have also been made a party to. Very expensive electoral systems also require a confluence of politics and bureaucracy to flow together in order to survive. It is the high standard of politics, the principles-based politics of morals and the integrity of politicians that can only raise the quality of governance. Ultimately it is the masses, i.e., the common man, who will decide how good their public servant will be. Otherwise, the history of Nepal is, at bottom, the history of illustrious bureaucrats who shaped Nepal’s sovereignty, prosperity, modernity and connectivity till today with periodic spells of success and failure.
The typical modus operandi of a bureaucrat is to create conflict first and solve it afterwards. This they do in order to survive. Because of political dominance, they are insecure, vulnerable to charges of corruption subject to investigation and public scrutiny, and they find it very difficult to be decisive. Hence, they take refuge in myriad excuses and explanations and develop a fine art of not doing or delaying or passing the buck so that the onus of things not happening lies with others. They have become defensive. They know that in today’s political dispensation, their career depends not on meritorious performance but rather in doing what they told. The price of this allegiance is their seeking their pound of flesh in terms of lucrative posts and assignments.
The hierarchical system of governance has become incongruous in today’s technical age but our government still persist with it. In our age when the private sector has shifted to a flat, horizontal, teamwork style of management our government finds layers of decision making more convenient. This system definitely has the advantage of absorbing more of their adherents and followers. It has been observed that the lowest rung of the bureaucratic ladder can bottleneck the progress of an important agenda if the top wants it so. It is always a consensual decision-making process dictated by the top. Hence in any hierarchical system of governance, the onus of failure rests with everybody but the success is always that of the top and the rest is endorsement. This system needs overhauling as it is out of step with the contemporary world.
The hierarchical system of decision making in any government is a system of endorsement in which there is no need for any merit and therefore, the concept of the right person at the right place becomes unnecessary. Anybody can fit anywhere, except in technical services. Lucrative posts have surplus contenders, whereas public hospitals, schools, especially in rural sectors, always face a dearth of manpower. Many vacancies in the government go unfulfilled because there are no applicants as they are not lucrative.
However, because of their multifaceted exposure to different situations of crisis and conflicts and also the experience of solving them, our bureaucrats are a talented lot who can definitely be moulded to be compatible to today’s need.
Post-pandemic our economy is in the doldrums in terms of slow poverty alleviation, inequality in distribution of income, unemployment, trade deficit, consumerism and inadequate investment in infrastructure and industrial enterprises. Though these issues pervade worldwide, in our case, they are worsening.
It is true that economic issues are best tackled by economic principles but human input, behaviors, skill and competency definitely can pull it out of the morass that we are in. It is our bureaucrats who will be tested for their efficiency and experience in today’s crisis to bring the economy back on stable rails. Globalisation has diversified and inflated the challenges manifold which, perhaps, should not be left only to the politic to tackle. It is the bureaucrats who have to show the way to the political forces by becoming their friend, philosophers and guide.
In the eyes of the common man the purpose of a bureaucrat is only to facilitate their welfare but for decades bureaucrats have been engaging in business activities also. Though the government has no reason to be in business they have been constrained to promote PSUs because either the private sector was reluctant to invest because of risks, or the then government, because of their socialistic leaning, chose to be in commercial venture for distributive equity. This trend still continues in Nepal, though in neighbouring countries divestment or contracting out to the private sector has become the norm.
Business in the hands of bureaucrats has never succeeded not because they are less talented but because these enterprises are not managed on business principles. The dilemma is that because of the type of political flux that we are in, government ownership of a business cannot be wished away and hence the necessity of a new cadre of business bureaucrats who can manage the commercial enterprise efficiently and profitably the way the private sector does. There has to be a consensus among the political parties that if the government at all is forced to be in business out of circumstance, it has to be in selected areas for a short period and these will be managed on business principles without any interference at the macro/micro level by the political set-up.
This agenda for reforms in our bureaucracy has become long overdue. After all, it is they who are the drivers of strategic engines of growth, they have to bring about correction, automation, digitalisation and technology in our system. They have to adapt to accelerated improvement in step with the contemporary world. In order to be able to deliver, they have to not only scale up but also earn the trust of the people, change their erstwhile conservative mindset of controls, adhocism and discretion to that of initiative innovation and incentives so that people’s participation is much more. This ‘let go’ strategy will definitely be more cohesive. The confrontational approach as observed today, will have to go, if the image of a bureaucrat has to change for the better. But before a bureaucrat does that, the government has to accept the dire necessity of reform in today’s bureaucracy and bring the issue centre stage.
Francis Fukuyama on bureaucratic reforms says, “The keys to different outcomes that is witness in the economic development of different countries is due to the sequence by which they reformed their bureaucracies relative to the moment they opened up their political system to wider democratic contestation”. This applies to us also in the fullest sense.
(The author is the chairman of Nimbus Group.)