Adding dynamism to the civil service

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has rightly advised the Administrative and Diplomatic Service (PTD) last Wednesday to promote civil servants to their top leadership roles as secretaries-general and directors-general, much earlier.

He explained that his proposal is to ensure that once these officers are promoted to those very important apex posts, they should be able to better advise the Prime Minister and his ministers, if they served them for a longer period.

They could formulate more progressive policies for the PM and his ministers and also implement these policies more effectively, as they would have more time to do so.

So how long should they serve their ministers to play more meaningful and useful roles? Currently, they serve about three years at the helm before retiring.

That is really not long enough to grasp their new responsibilities, establish their leadership position and authority over many tradition bound staff who are generally used to their old ways.

They have to think and act outside the box, with fresh thinking, innovative ideas and bold new initiatives to deliberately face the dynamic changing times and risks, at home and from the globalised world.

Thus, a longer five-year stint as the head of the ministry or department would greatly enhance the motivation and capacity of the ministry/department CEO, to lead his /her large staff much more efficiently and effectively.

In order to achieve this purpose of serving at least five years as a CEO in government, there should be a good system already in place, to identify special talent and prepare the selected officers to ably take over the top posts.

The current tendency to promote officers mainly according to seniority should be further diminished.

However, even these progressive measures suggested by the PM, although necessary, will not be sufficient to improve the civil service significantly.

We cannot improve the top managers and let the quality of lower ranks of the civil service, as well as the old thinking, procedures and processes remain unchanged.

Many management notions and practices are outdated, irrelevant and even contrary to modern methodology and future demands.

All this makes us less competitive now and especially in the future.

Our civil service must therefore be restructured.

It must be the best that we can have, if Malaysia is to move forward and overcome the challenging times ahead.

For us to be able to maintain our progress, we definitely have to review and transform our civil service which, like all dynamic and large organisations, needs to be reformed.

Hence, I strongly appeal to the Prime Minister to decide more radically to transform the civil service, to meet the new challenges of achieving all our goals of Vision 2020 and beyond, to say up to 2050.

We must in this regard compare ourselves and our socio-economic and political performance, now and the future, to our keen rivals all around us and adopt more international best practices in good governance as a matter of priority.

Consoling ourselves by comparing ourselves to far less developed countries, and taking pride in these weak comparisons, will not get us far!

I would thus propose that the Prime Minister appoint a special commission to transform the public service.

This commission could be chaired by an independent and highly respected former judge or another distinguished public personality of proven calibre, who could prepare a report within six months for the Government’s consideration.

I might add that the proposed commission could, in its terms of reference, also take into account the following vital issues:

> Choose the best graduates to join the public service. This was done during the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak. That is why we had real calibre civil servants like members of the Group of 25;

> Ensure the public service is truly multi-racial to reflect the racial and religious composition of our Malaysian society.

This will increase a sense of belonging and identity between the public and the public service.

This way some of the quick and harsh criticism against the civil service, could somewhat be reduced;

> Adopt a greater sense of competition and meritocracy and be prepared to phase out incompetent and errant and deviant civil servants. These are the kind of the little napoleons that we often find today, who discredit themselves, their colleagues, the Government and the rakyat whom they are supposed to serve loyally and diligently.

Finally, now that the Prime Minister has made some proposals to improve the civil service, this may be an opportune time to undertake a major transformation in the interests of Malaysia’s future national unity and progress.

Article published in The Star.

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