Government officials’ mindset must change to institutionalise federalism

Nepal’s shift from unitary to federal system of government has led to the creation of three tiers of government at the central, provincial and local levels. With this, authority and power are gradually being devolved from the centre to provinces and local bodies, generating new roles and responsibilities for sub-national governments. But the budding federalism faces a host of challenges largely because of the absence of proper organisational structure at the lower tiers of government and shortage of staff. Rupak D Sharma and Jagdishor Panday of THT met with Minister for Federal Affairs and General Administration Lal Babu Pandit to discuss these issues. Excerpts:

Sub-national governments are complaining about a shortage of staff. What is the ministry doing to address this problem?

The federal government is currently transferring its staff on the permanent and temporary basis to fulfil the human resource needs of sub-national governments. When I became the minister, the ministry did not have an organisational structure for deputation of staff in lower tiers of government. Now 95 per cent of that work, with distinct job classification, has been completed. We will finalise everything by the end of June or mid-July.

Could you elaborate on the new organisational structure?

The organisational structure outlines the number of ministries, departments and offices required at all levels of government. It also explains where these ministries, departments and offices should be established and the number of staff required by them for effective delivery of public goods and services. The organisational structure has also divided work into specific jobs for staff with specific skills to ensure there are right people at right places.

How many ministries, departments, offices and staff do all three tiers of government need?

The new organisational structure has proposed various numbers. For example, the federal government may only need around 30,000 staff, as against the existing workforce of around 80,000. We will transfer the excess staff to provincial and local levels. We also need to create uniformity in the number of staff recruited at local bodies. We’ve noticed the problem of overstaffing at well-established municipalities, whereas newly created municipalities are facing the shortage of staff. We also need to depute right people at right places. In the past, many jobs designated for officer-level staff, for example, were being performed by non-officer-level staff. I’ve put an end to this practice.

Is abundance of staff at the central level the reason for suspension of new staff hiring process?

With the shift from unitary to the federal system of government, the centre cannot hire civil servants in great numbers as in the past. This is because the constitution has clearly said that provinces will have their own civil service commissions to hire staff. Also, local bodies are authorised to recruit staff. Currently, the federal government has 80,000 permanent contract employees in its payroll. If the number of staff hired on the temporary basis are added, the number shoots up to around 125,000. The centre does not need a workforce of this size.

How long will it take to fill all vacant posts, especially in local bodies?

We’re planning to address this problem within mid-July.

Some of the local bodies have referred to staff transfers from the centre as micromanagement, as this has barred them from hiring staff on their own. What is your take on this issue?

Not all local bodies have received staff from the centre. Interventions have only been made if qualification and skills of existing staff at local bodies are not suitable for the posts they hold. It is necessary to put right people in right place to get desired output. Also, there is fear of job loss among local level staff who are on temporary contract. They think staff transferred from the centre will take away their jobs, leaving them jobless. Then there are others who have no option but to relinquish the power they were enjoying following deputation of senior staff from the centre. These people are not happy with the transfers made by the centre. These people are provoking elected representatives to protest the central’s government move to transfer staff.

Many central government staffers who have been asked to relocate to provincial or local levels are defying the instruction because of their desire to stay in Kathmandu. This is creating a shortage of staff elsewhere, isn’t it?

Yes, most of the staff currently serving the central government do not wish to be transferred to the provincial or local levels. They come to me, shed tears and request me to put their transfer process on hold. We have not entertained such requests unless they are genuine. For example, staff who are disabled, pregnant or are suffering from cancer or heart-related disease, have not been transferred.

What action will the federal government take against staff who do not follow the central government’s order to relocate?

I have clearly told those employees to either follow the government’s instruction or quit. These are the only two options. And this applies to trade union members as well. When I joined office, around 700 to 800 civil servants affiliated to different trade unions did not do much work. I have deputed all of them, except one who is severely ill, to different places. The bottom line is that there is no room for civil servants who do not work.

It is said the federal government is planning to allow only one trade union to operate. Is it true?

We have prepared the draft of the Federal Civil Service Act, which had incorporated the policy of single official trade union. We are currently discussing the content of the law. The law has also proposed to bar outsiders, mainly professionals, from joining the bureaucracy in the capacity of joint secretaries. It has also proposed to prevent senior government employees from joining international agencies and companies for a period of two years after retirement. This measure, we hope, will prevent retired staff from sharing classified information with outsiders.

In the federal system, power and authority are devolved from the centre to sub-national governments. But there are claims that the centre is still not willing to do so. Is this true?

The centre is delegating power and authority to sub-national governments in a responsible manner, as we do not want them to feel the jerk. Also, sub-national governments should be well aware of their jurisdiction. These days, for example, many INGOs are trying to build a relationship with sub-national governments bypassing the central government. Few representatives of local governments have even visited foreign countries to sign agreements. If we keep quiet about these issues, more and more representatives will start signing deals abroad. This will create chaos. That’s why we have asked sub-national governments to seek central government’s permission before sending their representatives abroad. But these lapses were expected because federalism is in its infancy. So, we are learning many things by doing them.

Some of the civil servants are also complaining that without foreign exposure they cannot learn much and introduce global best-practices in Nepal. What is your take on this line of reasoning?

I totally disagree with this viewpoint. One joint secretary, for example, stayed overseas for 210 days in a year. That official is neither from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Ministry of Finance. Staff like the joint secretary, who visit foreign countries on the pretext of obtaining knowledge, make a very little contribution to the country. We also have a mayor who has been continuously going abroad. But what is the outcome of those visits? How can these people work for the public, which is their primary job, if they travel abroad most of the time? We have prepared a draft of a guideline to curb such activities. Our intention is not to ban foreign trips but to regulate them.

Earlier, the federal government had said all the projects to be implemented in provinces and local levels would be transferred to sub-national governments by the next fiscal. But the new budget has failed to do so, is this the case?

Federalism is in its infancy in Nepal and institutions at provinces and local levels are not very strong. But officials working for the central government still want to control everything. This mindset should change to institutionalise federalism.

Many are saying those projects were not transferred to keep the funds in the centre because the central government is facing fund crunch. Is it true?

Funds allocated for such projects are safe with the central government and will be spent on those projects.