State of our civil service

I watched the last part of the People’s Voice debate on BBS TV this evening. The motion was “Civil Service – efficient and accountable?”

The team arguing against the motion won by a huge margin, 692 votes to 184 votes. Obviously, they were able to convince the viewers that our civil service is NOT efficient and accountable.

But the votes are compiled from viewer SMSs (only one SMS per phone number is recognized). So the result also reflects widespread discontent at the state of our civil service.

What do you think? Is our civil service efficient and accountable? Please take the poll. And please share your views. This is an important issue. And the more of us that think about it, the better it is for our country and our people.


Important apppointments

New top

Dasho Tashi Phuntshog, the cabinet secretary, was appointed as the new ambassador to Kuwait yesterday.

The appointment has me confused. I don’t know what to make of it.

The cabinet secretary is our top civil servant. He draws the highest salary in the civil service – several thousands of ngultrums higher than other secretaries – and, as such, is the most senior, important and powerful civil servant.

So when the top civil servant is transferred, even before the completion of his term, as the ambassador of our smallest embassy abroad, we must ask ourselves if the cabinet secretary’s position is really that important.

It is important. Whether the government recognizes it as such is another matter.

Regardless, I congratulate Dasho Tashi Phuntshog on his new appointment. And I wish him success in his new office.

I also congratulate Dasho Penden Wangchuk, the home secretary, who has been appointed as the new cabinet secretary. As our new top civil servant, Dasho Penden Wangchuk must represent, protect and fight for the interests of all our civil servants; he must guide and counsel them; he must be their role model; and, most importantly, he must provide them with much-needed leadership.

I wish him success in this important endeavor.

Finally, I congratulate Dasho Nima Wangdi who has been appointed as the new health secretary. He has his work cut out, having to deal, immediately, with the health procurement scam and chronic drug shortages in our hospitals. His experience in the finance ministry will, no doubt, prove useful in correcting the health ministry’s disorders.


Price increases

A civil servant tells me that the recent salary increase has made him poorer!

How? Because his pay increase barely covers the corresponding increase in the cost of rent, fuel and groceries. This is his statement of expenditure:

We can’t do much about the increase in the cost of fuel and onions. They reflect price hikes in India and have nothing to do with salary increases here.

But we can’t allow rents and the prices of other goods to shoot up every time civil servants get a pay hike. This undermines the whole purpose of a pay increase. And it makes life for employees in the private sector that much more difficult.

Are you a civil servant? If so, has the recent salary increase made you richer or poorer?

Not small or compact or efficient

Commenting on “No blank cheque!”, one reader, going by the name “justmyview”, asked what I thought about the government’s proposal to create a separate secretariat for energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs. In particular, “justmyview” asked if the Parliament’s approval was needed to create the proposed secretariat, and elaborated:

Constitution clearly says that addition or reduction of ministry requires approval from parliament but doesn’t say anything about creating secretariat. Whether separate energy secretariat is necessary or not is altogether a different issue, but is it necessary to get parliamentary approval for creating secretariat? This is, yet, another important issue which will set precedence for the future government. Now the question is, should secretariat be treated like ministry? Or are there some differences? So, in this regard, what is honorable OL’s honest view on whether it is necessary to get approval from parliament or not? Who should have a final authority? Should it be with RCSC or Cabinet or parliament?

A week later, and “justmyview” was still waiting for my views:

I am still waiting to hear HOL’s view on constitutionality issue between government and RCSC regarding energy secretariat. Or HOL has no view on this issue?

First things first: Let’s drop that “H” before the “OL”. It serves no purpose.

Now for my views: Does the creation of the proposed energy secretariat need the Parliament’s approval? Yes.

The proposed secretariat will be headed by a secretary to the government and will have a separate PPD and a separate AFD in addition to whatever other departments have been proposed. By this proposal, the energy secretariat will be a secretariat of a ministry. And its structure (AFD, PPD and departments under a secretary) will be like that of any existing secretariat under any ministry.

By placing the proposed secretariat under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, that minister would, in effect, be in charge to two ministries – a ministry of economic affairs, and a ministry of energy. Whether the two secretariats report to two separate ministers or, as proposed, to a common minister, they are essentially two separate secretariats of two separate ministries. And this, incidentally, is exactly what I had said when, more than two years ago, I first heard about the government’s intentions to establish an energy secretariat.

According to Article 20 Section 2 of the Constitution, “… Creation of an additional ministry or reduction of any ministry shall be approved by Parliament.” Therefore, the creation of the energy secretariat (by which a new ministry, the ministry for energy, would be created) must require the Parliament’s approval. So I’m concerned that the government seems convinced that they do not need the Parliament’s approval to establish the new secretariat. [Continue Reading…]

Vice ministers?

What? The prime minister wants to call secretaries vice-ministers?

Why? Who do we want to impress?

Shouldn’t we focus on streamlining the civil service instead? Shouldn’t we be working towards making the civil service small, compact and efficient?

Where did the prime minister get this idea from anyway? Where would vice ministers draw their legal basis from? And under what legal authority would they function?

What? The RCSC is in the dark? Really?

Wanted: free, frank and thorough discussions

Yenlag or not?

Yenlag or not?

Today, for the second time in less than one year, a joint sitting of the Parliament will discuss the Civil Service Bill. Parliament had discussed and rejected the Bill last year due to irreconcilable differences on some fundamental principles of the bill.

I hope that this time we, parliamentarians, can find a consensus to pass this very important legislation. But that will depend on our willingness and ability to engage in free, frank and thorough discussions on the differing interpretations of the Constitution’s provisions about the civil service.

That did not happen last year. There was very little debate on real issues like the independence of the judiciary and constitutional bodies. Hence the impasse. And hence a dead bill.

But we still haven’t learnt the lesson. That’s why the discussions last week on the proposed thromdes, especially when it came to interpreting the Constitution, were not free, frank or thorough. And that’s why the joint sitting eventually rejected the proposed list of yenlag thromdes.

The Constitution, on Local Governments, Article 22 Section 6 says that:

The Dzongkhag Tshogdu shall comprise:

(a)          The Gup and Mangmi as the two elected representatives from each Gewog;

(b)          One elected representative from that Dzongkhag Thromde; and

(c)           One elected representative from Dzongkhag Yenlag Thromdes.

One interpretation, favoured, by the opposition among others, is that a Dzongkhag Tshogdu cannot be complete if the representative of the yenlag thromde is not available. And to have that representative, a dzongkhag – every dzongkhag – must have at least one yenlag thromde.

Attempts to discuss this provision of the Constitution, which is also reproduced verbatim in the Local Government Act, were sidelined, leaving many parliamentarians confused and frustrated. Hence the impasse. And hence the rejection.

I hope we’ve learnt the lessons. And I hope that the second joint sitting on the Civil Service Bill succeeds today. That will depend on our willingness and ability to engage in free, frank and thorough discussions.

UPDATE: The Parliament endorsed the Civil Service Bill. All but two members, both from the NC, voted in favour of the Bill. One member voted against the Bill, one member abstained. The Parliament also endorsed the National Standards Bill, this one by 100%.

Increase civil service salaries

Civil servants in Dorokha

The day before yesterday, during budget discussion, the seven reasons I reported on why it may be time to review civil service salaries:

  1. Domestic revenue of the government, through tax and non-tax measures, has increased considerably since the last salary increase. In 2008-09 domestic revenues were projected to be Nu 11,932 million. In 2009-10 it was Nu 14,108 million. And in 2010-11 it is projected to be Nu 15,816 million. Domestic revenues have increased by a whopping 33% while civil service salaries have remained stagnant.
  2. Between 2008-09 and 2010-11 budgets, the government’s overall outlay has increased by a considerable 41%. Of that, about half goes to finance recurrent costs. Recurrent costs in 2008-09 were budgeted at Nu 11,061 million, and for 2010-11 at Nu 15,154 million. That’s a 37% jump in current expenditure in the two years. Salaries form a big part of recurrent costs, yet civil service salaries have not benefited from the 37% increase in current costs.
  3. Prices have increased. For the year 2009, the government has estimated a price increase of 10.74% for food items. For 2008, it estimated price increase of 11.75% for food items. That works out to a cumulative price increase of 23.75% over the last two years.
  4. Taxes are increasing. The government is proposing a wide range of taxes aimed at increasing revenue by Nu 450 million.
  5. Fuel prices have increased twice in the last six months. The last increase will drive up inflation even higher.
  6. Most civil servants will now receive less money. Civil servants received a uniform pay increase of 35% in January 2009. However, the basic pay was not increased. Instead the 35% increase was given as an “allowance” so that the government would not have to increase their matching contributions to the provident fund. So after the 35% allowance is incorporated in the basic pay, civil servants will henceforth receive less money in the hand every month – provident fund contributions, health contribution, TDS and more will now be deducted from the 35% increase in salary.
  7. The public expects a pay increase. In fact, the pay increase is a consolidation of the 35% allowance that civil servants have been receiving so far. So, in reality, they will receive less money from July onwards. But the public thinks that there is a pay increase. So prices will rise. And, in spite of the Tenancy Act, rents will, once again, increase.

I’ve suggested earlier – every year, in fact – that public service salaries should be revised every year taking into account the overall economic situation in the country. For simplicity, salary revision could be pegged to the price movements of a basket of goods and services, but one that is comprehensive and relevant.

That way, public servants wouldn’t expect a sudden hike in the salaries every now and then. And the government wouldn’t have to ponder about how best to extract political mileage when salaries are increased.

Managing performance

Chapter 12 of the BCSR is dedicated to performance management.

It provides a detailed prescription of how civil servants must plan, review and rate their work in order to improve productivity and accountability in the civil service. The general idea is good: it is to cultivate a performance-based culture that rewards meritocracy and professionalism. It is also intended to boost morale in the civil service.

So the RCSC’s performance appraisal system should be implemented faithfully. But, we are told, it isn’t. Civil servants say that the appraisal system is not taken seriously, and that it does not work. They also admit that appraisal forms are routinely completed ex post, when it’s time for promotions and trainings.

Now there’s a bigger danger: performance compacts. The government, with McKinsey’s guidance, has started signing performance compacts with several agencies. Unfortunately, the RCSC is not involved; they have not even been consulted. So, these compacts will just add to redundancies in the government.

But it’s more than mere redundancy. Our civil servants are confused. They cannot understand why only a few agencies and, within them, only a few officials must sign binding compacts with the government. Most of them don’t understand the new system. And, many of them don’t feel a sense of ownership.

If the performance compact can improve efficiency in the civil service, if it can increase productivity, if it can lift the morale of civil servants, it must be pursued. But for it to succeed, it must first be understood, and then fully accepted by the very people who must ultimately implement the compacts, i.e., the civil servants.

Equally important, the new system must involve the agency that is legally mandated to manage the performance of civil servants, i.e., the RCSC.

Yes, we need to allow our civil servants to improve the way they work. But what we do must be effective. And must be legal.

Performance compacts, as they are currently being implemented, are neither.

Where’s Justice?

Exactly one month ago, I called on the Royal Civil Service Commission requesting them to reverse their decision to terminate (without retirement benefits) seven education officials from their jobs. The basis of my request was that the RCSC had violated Section 10.2 of the Bhutan Civil Service Rules and Regulations 2006.

Section 10.2 declares that: “Only one penalty shall be imposed in each case.”

I haven’t heard from the RCSC yet. But in the meantime, I’ve learnt about another case, this time involving three officials of the Paro NIE.

They too had been caught “adjusting” their accounts, supposedly to meet workshop expenses. They were penalized. Then they were taken to court. And after the court’s verdict, the RCSC reinstated all three of them in their earlier jobs.

One of them decided to resign. He applied for, and received his retirement benefits.

The other two decided to continue in their jobs. But the RCSC reversed their earlier decision and terminated them both. They didn’t receive their retirement benefits.

Where is Section 10.2? Where is justice?

This is their story: [Continue Reading…]

Section 10.2

The Bhutan Civil Service Rules and Regulations 2006, commonly known as BCSR 2006, consists of 21 Chapters spread over 223 pages. It can be downloaded from the RCSC website.

Read it.

Now identify the most important provision in the document.

Civil servants would probably point to Section 10.2 on page 200 of the BCSR. Section 10.2 states that: “Only one penalty shall be imposed in each case.”

Why should Section 10.2 be so important? Because it protects civil servants from undue and excessive administrative authority.

When civil servants transgress – when they are undisciplined, when they do not perform, when they abuse their power and authority, when they are corrupt – they must be punished. But having been punished for an offense, they must know that that same offense will not be repeatedly investigated and that they will not be subject to additional penalties.

Cases against civil servants must be thoroughly investigated and administrative penalties fully imposed. But after that, the matter should be firmly closed. Otherwise, we risk exposing civil servants to all types of unpredictable and arbitrary harassment.

That’s why Section 10.2 of the BCSR is important. And that’s why Section 10.2 must be protected.

So I called on the Chairman of the Royal Civil Service Commission yesterday. And I requested the Commission to reconsider their decision to terminate (without retirement benefits) the services of seven education officials. All seven of them had already been served multiple administrative penalties, so the decision to terminate them would amount to a blatant violation of Section 10.2.

In Parliament, I had asked the Education Minister:How has the Ministry of Education sought to redress this possible injustice against the Education personnel?”

And he had replied: “the case is not yet over”.

But it has already been about nine months since the seven officials lost their jobs. And lost their retirement benefits. In spite of Section 10.2