Nepal's uncivil servants

Making the bureaucracy more efficient faces bureaucratic hurdles


While I was working in the National Planning Commission, I was assigned a branch officer to assist me professionally. I found after we began working together that my assistant neither knew how to access emails or set up my daily schedule.

All my assistant would do was pore over books to pass exams in order to get promoted. The promotion would go through, not as a result of my subordinate’s professional abilities, but on the basis of a three-hour exam filled with pages of rote-learning.

I have constantly questioned how this process is justified.

This is one of many examples of the procedural inconsistencies that I have encountered upon a close analysis of Nepal’s bureaucratic mechanism— both as someone in government and out of it.

The primary responsibility of a civil servant is to implement the law, and above all, serve the people to the bet of their ability. These responsibilities, however, seem to be contrary to the attitude of many Nepali government employees.

Indeed, I have often noticed that they have an air of superiority over ordinary citizens — as if the public they are supposed to serve as being beneath them and the positions they occupy.

This is not to say that there are not capable, diligent public officials serving the people. But they are heavily outnumbered by the unqualified, under-motivated and incompetent. They get to their posts through these perfunctory tests, personal connection, or political affiliation.

This political-bureaucratic collusion exists even after new employees enter government service and after their retirement, where they get to hop from one government commission to another.

Much prestige is assigned to the fact that somebody has passed Nepal’s public service exam. It guarantees one financial and job security for the next two decades. But as much importance is given to the tests, there is little way through which the exam can evaluate if potential government staff can handle the responsibility of their work.

And once one passes the exams and enters public service, there is no practice of evaluating whether employees are up-to-date with the technology required to fulfil their jobs, nor is there any mechanism to evaluate them on the basis of their work.

In fact, any consequences that government employees might face for their professional actions is when they get transferred, wherein they are sent off to work in remote districts. Ironically, the work done during their transfer later becomes a basis for one’s promotion, making the entire process a reward instead of punishment.

Access to public service in Nepal depends largely upon the leverage that one has. Indeed, if I were to go into any government office without my government identification, it would be difficult to access any service.

Read also: “Everything is political”, Durga Karki

While my MP badge greases the wheels of bureaucracy these days, those who are not in my position need to instead grease palms to get things done. And others who know people in the right places might make back channel ‘arrangements’ to get what they need.

The onus of streamlining our deteriorating bureaucracy lies in both civil servants and political leadership who seek votes through promises of ‘change’. Once they get elected, the success or failure of the political leadership depends on how their subordinates translate their vision into action.

In Nepal, the effect of changing governments extends to the bureaucracy. There have been instances where public service workers have thwarted the plans of politicians by citing their agenda as not being in line with the law.

Conversely, politicians have often unnecessarily intervened to transfer employees who are not aligned with their party interests, or refuse to carry out unethical actions.

As a result, public service workers use precious time to question whether they should fulfil their professional responsibilities or play nice with their new bosses by not rocking the boat.

Government officers have a duty to be objective and transparent about the work they are doing. They need to be well informed about the legal and political red tape in the bureaucracy since they are the ones who draft bills that are tabled in Parliament.

The bills therefore serve the interest and preferences of a few individuals working in civil service.  The role of a parliamentarian is limited to voting either for or against the bill.

We must now focus on if — or how much — discretionary power we should give to civil servants. Nepal’s Parliament is discussing this matter at present, along with other reforms to the work culture of public service officers.

Indeed, the entire bureaucratic system needs a complete overhaul and things will only improve when employees are transferred, promoted, rewarded and punished on the basis of the outcome of their work.

It is also a good idea for public offices to adopt a system of Terms of Reference (TOR) wherein an employee in a certain position must complete a targeted amount of work while holding a position.

The nature of public service means that civil servants are permanently a part of government. They have many facilities at their disposal: from separate hospitals, financial security during crises, and opportunities to travel abroad. All of this is paid for with Nepali taxpayers’ money.

Nepal’s public service workers must be made to understand that bureaucratic problems within our system of government must under no circumstances interfere with the services that Nepali taxpayers are entitled to.

Read also, All politics is local, Sahina Shrestha

Bimala Rai Paudyal, PhD, is a member of the National Assembly.