Bureaucratic blame game : Inherently fallacious

At a recent meeting of the Public Administration Association, senior bureaucrats, past and present, once again indulged in what has been their favourite pastime for as long as we can remember — “blame game”, “Bureaucrats resent political interference” (THT, Jan 10). While a former chief secretary accused “filthy politics” of having spoilt Nepali officialdom, another pleaded for “people-centric administration”, mindless of the fact that he himself had ample opportunity to promote it when incumbent but didn’t. The Secretary of the Ministry of General Administration himself wanted “more rights and powers” if the bureaucracy were to be “accountable for the government’s performance”.

These statements reflect one thing in common: they attribute the government’s failure to deliver to the politicians’ incompetence and exonerate the officials from all sins of omission and commission.

While most Nepali politicians, past or present, have been anything but paragons of competence or integrity, the above depiction of the bureaucracy’s limitations remains flawed nonetheless. Firstly, civil servants remain a privileged lot, generally assured of permanence of tenure ; allowed entry into this exclusive club based only on certain academic merit; groomed at great cost to society over prolonged periods through multiple opportunities for training and exposure within the country and abroad; and deputed to varied assignments to help him grow on the job. In contrast, there are no educational pre-requisites for entry into the free-for-all arena of politics. Most politicians who show up in the corridors of power would probably have had a mediocre education at best, and are instead bolstered by a host of other extracurricular competencies — often not related to the task of governance — gained for the most part through the rough and tumble of no-holds-barred game of politics.

Most of them would have difficulty even to properly read out a prepared speech to a professional audience, but nonetheless remain matchless in perfecting politics into an art that needs no supplementation by a known source of income. For the Maoists, the rise in politics has been even more demanding — born and brought up in the “jungle” with little access to any education as recently emphasised by one of their own stalwarts, but equipped with an abundance of capacity for obeisance that renders any intellectual inquisitiveness essentially redundant.

Compared to this, the civil servants have been a privileged lot who, as indicated above, have had the luxury of a more erudite upbringing, aimed at enabling them to deliver. Not doing so would be a breach of trust. They must realise that there have been a few important innovations in the country’s governance, all made by serving officials, that have had far reaching and positive consequences for the people in general. For instance, the concept of user group, now a ubiquitous part of the larger policy regime of the state, was innovated by an under-secretary in the Department of Local Development during the late 70s. Forest user groups that played such a crucial role in the rejuvenation of Nepal’s forests — whose destruction had otherwise brought the country to the brink of desertification — were innovated by a joint secretary in the National Planning Commission during the late 80s. Mothers’ groups and female community health volunteers, the two ubiquitous institutions that have gone on to assure the sustained and countrywide delivery of life saving drugs leading to drastic reductions in infant and child mortality rates were innovated by an additional secretary in the Health Ministry during the late 80s, too. In all fairness to Nepali politicians, it must be said that most often they are not averse to bright and innovative ideas as long as they do not immediately harm their vested interest. For instance, although the concept of forest user group was the brainchild of a serving official, it became a part of the government policy only after the concerned minister approved it. Now, unlike in the past, no forest official including the minister can make a paisa out of the community forests (forget for the time being the rampage by our own Prime Minister’s YCL in recent months).

Given the immense difference that the civil servants could make in national development, the secretary of the Ministry of General Administration has a momentous contribution to make before retirement takes him away too from that profoundly important chair that he occupies at present. He has to make professionalism, innovativeness and performance the main criteria for the promotion and rewards of the civil servants. Only by doing so would the quality of our officials change for the better. Otherwise, under his oversight, as Pallavi Koirala wrote in the Midway section “Holier than thou” (THT, Jan 9)”, all junior officials would be yawning in their chairs even as the senior ones would be flattering their bosses on their way up.

Shrestha is a former additional secretary