7 ways to top-notch civil service

TRANSFORMATION: Government servants must not only do things efficiently but also differently

THE civil service forms the backbone of Malaysia’s socio-economic development and the capacity of the public administrators to facilitate the evolving national agenda largely determines the success of public policies.

The government is faced with the need to meet increasingly high expectations of public service delivery along with the pressure to achieve fiscal sustainability. This conundrum means that the civil service must not only do things with efficiency but also differently.

Reforming the civil service constitutes an integral part of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s transformation agenda.

The first step to civil service reform is addressing the issue of “inefficient government bureaucracy”, cited by the Global Competitiveness Report as the most problematic factor for doing business in Malaysia for the fourth consecutive year.

Burdensome administrative procedures push up costs of doing business and, therefore, discouraging private investment.

Poor implementation of government initiatives compounded with wasteful public spending distorts the original intent of public policies, creating man-made barriers to developmental growth.

Fighting the scourge of corruption also matters as mishandling of public funds compromises state development and the people get less value for money.

The recurring nature of wasteful spending in government, as highlighted in the annual Auditor-General’s Report, exposes the weaknesses in existing institutional mechanism at enforcing transparency and accountability.

There is also the issue of the civil service being seen as not representative of the population.

This imbalance gives rise to several unintended implications, the first being that non-Malays systematically choose not to work in the civil service, and secondly, that the process of policymaking is less inclusive and potentially arouses religious and cultural sensitivities when formulating policies to suit a multiethnic society.

The Centre for Public Policy Studies, in a recent policy paper entitled “Reforming the civil service”, offers seven recommendations to build a high-performing civil service.

Reduce the size of civil service to its core function
Non-core functions of a department or agency should be identified and contracted out to private organisations or semi-autonomous executive agencies.

These institutions must adhere to a clear mandate, including delivering public services in a timely and efficient manner, but possess flexibility in human management decisions as well as sources of funding.

South Korea’s Driver’s Licence Agency, an executive agency, reduced time spent for issuing driver’s licence from four hours to just 15 minutes.

Restructure recruitment process to attract talent
The civil service should roll out a management associate programme in the graduate employment scheme to create a sustainable talent pipeline so that young talents are identified and groomed to assume leadership positions at the later stage of their public service career. An open and competitive recruitment system should be put in place to attract “civilian experts” — mid-career talents from the private sector who can bring valuable corporate perspectives into public policymaking.

Institutionalise a merit-based reward system
Public sector employees’ pay must closely reflect the quality of performance. A two-tier pay structure — a constant basic wage and variation of a variable wage that is conditional upon performance of an officer or a department — should be implemented. Blanket rise in pay has to cease as it does not provide the right incentives to increase performance.

Curb leakages and overspending
Introduction of an outcome-based budgeting system by the government is lauded as allocation of public funds is now based on outcome rather than output.
In terms of curbing leakages and imprudent spending, a budget cap must be enforced on all levels of government and punishment in the form of budget cuts or poor variable-wage should be imposed.

Fight graft through technology
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) should make available cases of public officials convicted of corruption on their official website. Dismissals of corrupt public officers must be carried out more rigorously to send a strong signal of the government’s determination in fighting graft.

Competitive tender of public projects should be institutionalised through an e-tender system, where the selection process and justifications for awarding a bid are made public to promote transparency and accountability.

Change mindset
All these recommendations will contribute towards creating a merit-based civil service. But the government should realistically attempt to change the mindset of civil servants one step at a time. Focal groups should be placed in all ministries and agencies aimed at conducting educational workshop as well as tracking the progress of the bureaucracy in adopting best practices.

Create a people-oriented civil service
By shedding the non-core functions of government, civil servants could be empowered to engage the people in understanding the issues from the ground and collecting insightful feedback to improve public service delivery.

The use of a “citizen’s report card” as part of an annual employee evaluation can better promote a customer-oriented civil service.

Weaknesses in the Malaysian civil service are multifaceted. Drastic retrenchment, contrary to popular belief, is no panacea to filling the gap between expectations and actual performance.Underpinning a successful reform is the political will to see through politically sensitive measures and remain steadfast in the face of resistance.

After all, politics is the art of the possible, and our politicians must take centre stage.

Article published in the New Straits Times.

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