Ideas: In need of a civil service shakedown

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YEAR IN, year out, the Auditor General’s Report highlights the same reason for poor public service delivery — the underwhelming capabilities of government officers.  

A few weeks ago, the third series of the AG’s Report for 2013 was released. Though there was less hype (not to mention drama) over its findings, the message was clear. The people managing large multi-million ringgit public projects are severely unprofessional. And what does this unprofessionalism mean?

It means shoddy compliance with procurement procedures, mismanagement of finances, weak project management and inadequate monitoring of projects. These trends also surface not only in the AG’s Report but also in the findings of the Public Accounts Committee, as well as in the Public Complaints Bureau Annual Report.

Cringingly, the AG’s Report attributes these problems to a simple lack of experience and skills, with no real call for reprimand save for heads of departments to monitor the officers better. Reality check — this is really inexcusable.

To be fair, the government has attempted to introduce several measures to reform the civil service. The Economic Transformation Programme includes public service delivery (PSD) as part of its key strategy.

PSD includes real-time performance monitoring systems that focus on the performance and efficiency of individual officers. Here, delivery is key, and one would assume this would mean better performance as officers come under closer scrutiny. Nevertheless, civil service reforms will be insufficient and ineffective unless the government addresses the proverbial elephant in the room.

There are at least three such elephants at the moment: reprimanding under-performing civil servants, the hiring and rewarding of talent based on meritocracy, and the management of existing talent in the civil service.

Uncompetitive firing

Let’s start with the biggest bullet of them all: firing uncompetitive civil servants. Many have heard the stories of civil servants not showing up for work and who are then placed in cold storage rather than simply being fired. Retaining these individuals in the civil service does two things. First, it makes the civil service look bad, which denigrates the efforts of hardworking and honest civil servants. Second, it simply results in poor public service delivery.

The procedure to fire a civil servant starts with a letter of order by the head of department to the officer to return to duty, followed by a formal report to the disciplinary board if the officer fails to comply. If these fail, a notice is published in a national language newspaper and, finally, a declaration of dismissal is made if the officer has not returned to work after seven days of the notice. It is important to note that these steps are sequential. If, at any point, an officer returns to work, the process may start again. The question is: how many such notices have you seen in the papers?

Competitive hiring and promotions

Competitive hiring has seen improvements. Currently, there is leeway for those in the private sector to join the public service in top and mid-career positions. The government has also started absorbing top government scholars into ministries. This can only be enhanced by formalising the competitive recruitment of officers instead of the government acting as an employer of last resort.

Tying salaries and bonuses to merit, rather than annual across-the-board bonuses and fixed compensation, will make the civil service more attractive. On promotions, perhaps seniority should not be the main consideration. Officers trained under the National Institute for Public Administration (Intan) have a fast-track option into the service, but the performance monitoring system can play a bigger role in determining promotions based on an officer’s ability to deliver.

Encouraging specialisation and retaining specialists

Another unspoken problem is talent management in ministries. To be sure, mid-ranking officers are encouraged to further their studies and even have to justify how their post-graduate degree will benefit the ministry in future. But when they return with their degrees, these officers are often transferred to another department, or worse, another ministry entirely. There is no logic behind this and it certainly demoralises the individual who has worked hard to be a specialist.

It calls to meaning the AG Report’s findings on the lack of skills and expertise among officers as a reason why procedures and policies have not been adhered to; before officers can even build their capacity and skill sets, they are moved to a totally different field. This is why the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs has promoted a professional track for procurement officers in its policy paper, which could be applied for officers in all ministries.

Given the government’s commitment to improving public services, it is time it does something real about these elephants in the room. Reform or lose credibility at the expense of Malaysia’s vision of progress.

Shaza Onn is senior researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 15 - 21, 2014.