Reward merit

At long last, the government has moved to confirm 27 persons as secretaries in various ministries. Though reports have surfaced of the Cabinet having made up its mind on the names, further progress seems to be stalled because of disagreement among constituent parties in the government. The secretary promotion committee had recommended 81 prospective candidates, three times the number of vacancies, for the Cabinet to narrow it down to the requisite number. The Cabinet’s administration committee is reported to have agreed in principle to promote all acting or officiating secretaries and choose the others from the long list. In an effort to make the selections more inclusive, the committee is likely to pick some junior joint secretaries to represent Madhesis and women. Confirmation for the posts is likely to inject an element of stability into the functioning of the civil service because the secretaries will then not feel like being mere stopgaps. The bureaucracy had been in a state of uncertainty for more than a year for lack of a civil service law — the old Civil Service Act had become virtually defunct while Parliament took too long a time to promulgate the new Civil Service Act-2007.

But, in order to make the bureaucracy efficient and effective, as well as clean, the selection criteria need to be sound in principle and rigorous in practice. But a mere sense of stability of their tenures will not make the secretaries function better. In fact, government jobs are the most stable in the country — there is only hiring and virtually no firing of employees in government service, however incompetent, negligent, insincere or venal they may be. There are no solid grounds for believing that all the choices in the making will represent the best possible decisions. In fact, the desire to make the selections arbitrary lies in the recent requirement that the promotion committee recommend three times the vacant number out of which the political leadership can pick and choose. In the past, the law required only half of that for promotion or recruitment.

The political leadership’s job is to create effective mechanisms and set sound criteria for promotion and bring to book those who deviate from the proper mode of official behaviour. In the present case, some administration experts have found fault, with some justification, with the retention of the old leadership of the promotion committee appointed by the royal regime. However, the fundamental question is one of establishing a sound system that works rather than civil servants’ personal or political links with their political bosses or the distribution of the vacant seats among the political parties. Besides, the present system has an inbuilt mechanism — the final marking by a three-member committee of secretaries and chief secretary — that can make or mar the prospects of an employee who has done well in performance evaluation. Sadly, parliamentary vetting does not apply to the civil service heads of the ministries. Some important factors have often been ignored in the decision-making process.