THE NEW CHIEF SECRETARY
According to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, serious and competent governance requires making difficult policy choices and seeing them through to effect, even against strong opposition and the tide of public opinion. To what extent the new chief secretary, considered as ‘prime minister’ of the ‘permanent government’—the bureaucracy, can give the feeling of quality governance, is of utmost importance in the present atmosphere of frustration and disappointment, further aggravated by an uncertain political environment.
People of Nepal expected good governance after the success of the 1990 political movement and subsequent advent of multi-party democracy. But the bitter truth is that socio-economic development just could not take-off as expected, and presently Nepal is lagging behind most of the then same-status countries in Asia and Africa. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding what went wrong in the past 22 years has mainly focused on politics and politicians. A wiseman once made a very pertinent statement that politicians are the most criticized lot in any society because they are the most publicly exposed among all professions. This may be the reason why a majority of intellectuals, civil society and media stalwarts rarely discuss and analyze the role of bureaucracy in the present sorry state of affairs in the country, and instead express their anger and frustration only towards politics and politicians.
In any country, the responsibility of governance rests with two groups—polticians and bureaucrats. Hence, we cannot give a clean chit to the bureaucracy for the slow and negligible socio-economic development of our country in the past few decades. If one looks closely at laws, rules, regulations, priority-setting mechnisms, decision-making styles, norms and procedures inside government machinery, it will not be wrong to conclude that almost half of the responsibility in governance lies with the bureaucracy. Hence, the head of bureaucracy, the chief secretary, has a major role in steering all kinds of nation-building activities. As less debate occurs on this issue, the general public is ignorant of the importance, value and prestige of the institution of chief secretary.
On an average, prime ministers in Nepal have changed every 10 or 11 months in the past 22 years. Interestingly, many consider this as ‘political instability’. But in fact, frequent government changes are quite a normal phenomenon in democratic countries of the world, including developed nations, which some political analysts consider as an unavoidable price the society has to pay for democracy.
Against this background, the three year tenure of a chief secretary should be considered as a ‘stable and permanent’ bridge between major political parties to make sure that people’s agenda of socio-economic development is not unnecessarily derailed due to a change of guard in the government. It is time that top bureaucrats, including the chief secretary, stop using the so-called political instability, political interference and ‘incapable and ignorant’ ministers as excuses for poor governance.
Whatever be the weaknesses of ministers, it is unlikely that they will go to the extent of instructing bureaucrats to block or slow down development projects and service delivery. It is hard to believe that it is only because of unstable politics that we took 40 years to complete just 15 percent of the Lumbini Master Plan, that we have 16 hours of load shedding, 19 years of unfinished Melamchi, no new aircraft has been purchased for 26 years by the national flag carrier, and there has been no progress on crucial projects like the second international airport, tunnel highway, fast-track highway, outer Ringroad project of Kathmandu and dozens of big multi-million dollar hydropower projects.
Governance depends on two groups, polticians and bureaucrats, and we cannot give a clean chit to bureaucracy for our slow development.
The nation has a new chief secretary, Leela Mani Paudyal. The main challenge for him is whether to follow the tradition of ‘playing safe’ by remaining in the comfort zone of ‘orderly inaction’, focussing on routine jobs like writing minutes of cabinet decisions and ceremonial trivial tasks, or whether to be proactive to make a difference and give real leadership to bureaucracy. He needs to show leadership capabilities with a high degree of positive energy and optimism, and he should not waste time in micro-managing administrative compexities. His efforts should be to enhance priority-setting, decision-making and implementation capabilities—the three weakest aspects of past governments.
The priority should be to make bold and drastic changes in our ancient and anachronistic laws, rules, and procedures and to stamp out red tapism. CEOs of more than three dozen government corporations, for intance, have been urging the government to ammend the Public Procurement Act, 2063 in order to speed up projects. It is a matter of common sense that either the government should prove they are wrong or the Act should be ammended immediately, as it directly impacts the economic progress of the nation.
Similarly, in the present context of global competition to attract foreign investment, we have to make sure that our rules and procedures are faster, easier and less cumbersome than those in India, China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other countries. Hence, the country is hoping that the new chief secretary will act as an agent of change so that the dream of many, including the current prime minister, to achieve double digit economic growth is realized in the near future.
The writer is former Executive Chairman, Nepal Airlines Corporation