Civil service : Redefining its role

Recently, a seminar on civil service was organised to mark the Civil Service Week in the context of federalisation of the country. Despite the profound importance of the event, the event was more an exercise in tokenism, betraying the fact that the Nepali civil servants themselves do not subscribe to the widely shared definition of civil service being the mainstay of stability and change in society.

The meeting was participated by about half a dozen secretaries, and the rest of the gathering mostly comprised of retired secretaries and Class I and II officers, thus giving the impression that the event was meant more to pamper the sentiments

of the retired officials. The few serving officials in the event seemed to view themselves more as guests “gracing” the occasion. This view was supported by the fact that the government had given funds to the Council of Retired Public Servants to organise the event, whereas a Civil Service Day should have been a government undertaking, plain and simple.

The two-hour meeting was chaired by the Chief Secretary. But in less than an hour he handed over the gavel to the Secretary of General Administration and left the meeting with most other secretaries trooping out with him. The new chairman too, in less than half that time, passed the task on to another official who had just arrived. With three chairmen presiding in two hours, the event was nothing more than a farce.

During the floor discussion, one retiree participant pointed out the urgency of two fundamental reforms in the civil service. First, performance and innovative achievements - two attributes vital for stability and change, but totally absent in the present system of assessment - must be made the principal criterion for the upward mobility of civil servants.

Even as it transforms the civil service positions into springboards of innovation in the government, it would also redefine the very character of our bureaucracy. To suggest that this is an attainable proposition he cited a few of his own innovations while in the government.

They included the widely used concept of user groups, the institution of forest user groups that went on to rebuild Nepal’s forests, the Female Community Health Volunteers who bring primary healthcare to their own villages, and the mothers’ groups that promote women’s participation in local development.

Secondly, given the fact that stakeholder-owned and managed organisations are more effective in promoting sustainable development in the country, the role of bureaucracy should now be purposively and urgently redefined to make it function as the facilitator of the development process rather than as chronically ineffective agency incapable of delivering development.

Since civil service reform was the theme of the seminar, the chair, a Special Class official, could have guided the discussion possibly to thrash out a consensus, on the improvements needed in the country’s civil service. But his enthusiasm did not extend that far. Despite the crucial position he held in the government, his agenda did not include authoring reforms during his tenure. He was certainly unaware of inverse relationship that existed between the bureaucracy and the country all along. Even as the bureaucracy grew in size, professional capacities, and its

perks and facilities over the years, the country’s situation either stagnated or became worse.

By all accounts, with the Maoists at the helm, the question of survival seems once again to dog our officials, bringing out their chameleonic capacity to full view at

least through their sartorial transformation. During the King-led Panchayat regime, all officers from the Section Officer up dressed themselves in daura suruwal, the national dress, with almost religious fervour.

Even after 1990 when many political leaders sported non-daura suruwal attire, the Class II officials and above held on to the national dress, as did the ministers and royal palace officials. But now, with the institution of monarchy defunct and the new Maoist Prime Minister sporting an occidental suit most of the time, suddenly there is an upheaval as to how the government officials should now dress themselves.

While the chief bureaucrat is all tidied up in a suit or a lounge suit with a necktie going with it, other secretaries too have followed suit. Those who find the weather too hot for a jacket still suspend a necktie from the collar of their half-sleeve shirts. Even such officials, who, due to their short and stout physical features, might just look more dignified in a daura suruwal, do not want to risk looking different from the rest of the pack during these turbulent times. So, the consequence for our own daura suruwal, a national heritage, is going to be catastrophic. With its old bastion gone, the daura suruwal is now faced with the prospect of extinction.

Shrestha is a former additional secretary