Save Public Institutions From Decline


Public institutions are the vehicle of governance and development of a nation. They are created by the state with a view to enhancing effective governance, accountability, promote economic and social development and ultimately attain the well-being of the nation. The functioning of the public institutions determines the legitimacy and efficacy of the government to secure justice to people.  Public institutions constitute both formal and informal arrangements and provisions that include parliament, judiciary, civil bureaucracy, universities and hospitals other chartered and legally enabled entities serving a variety of public purposes. These purposes can be understood using three broad, and sometimes overlapping, categories of functions they undertake. 

The functions, according to political scientists, consist of conserving, enabling and moral valuing functions. Conserving function of public institutions refers to activities that emphasise the maintenance of order and security from internal and external threats. Police forces, prisons, legal system, border patrol, and the military functions are primarily associated with conserving or security. The government invests resources in the conserving function of public institutions for reason of the fact that national interest and security are the paramount issue of state sovereignty. The second broad category is enabling, facilitating and regulating function. This enabling and regulating function of public institutions emphasises not only fostering development and prosperity but also proper allocation of resources.  

Moral valuing

The third category of institutional functions is moral valuing referring to norms and ethos   public institutions attempt to incorporate in the governing system through public education, citizen conscientisation, social welfare, budget priorities, court decisions and so on.       However, public institutions cannot grow, take shape and become functional over night as and when they are created. They need time, resources, mandate, autonomy and support so as to enable them to be effectively institutionalised and functional. Public institutions mostly work through organisations. The organisations may be created from scratch. In such a situation, organisational strength needs to be developed; internal capacity must be developed. Then only stable organisation arises and gets metamorphosed into an effectively working institution.

The first challenge for any public organisation is to secure a semblance of institutionalisation. There is a need to translate formal goals into effective working practices. The uniqueness of public institutions, unlike private entities, is that they generally do not formulate the formal goals. These are usually mandated by the government.  Formal goals often tend to be multiple, complex, vague, and subject to constant interpretative shifts. Moreover, these goals do not come with a clear set of implementation instructions. It must invent or adopt a way of working that is both effective and legitimate. Many of these institutional goals are very difficult to accomplish because of their structural deficiencies, unrealistic targets and lack of autonomy, resources to allow them to adapt to the new situation and context.  

Modern state secures legitimacy and carries out its governing and development function   through a diverse range of public institutions, entities and mechanism. The societies are well-governed and better organised to the extent that their public institutions can adequately manage and deliver services entrusted to them. If public institutions are weak, fragile and cannot function effectively, the structure and function of the state itself is bound to decline and fail to even perform its core minimum tasks. If public institutions cannot function effectively, social, political and economic development of the nation gets stagnated further. Such a situation leads to the impoverishment and jeopardy in the people's livelihood. This eventually causes into the gradual failure of the state itself.

In Nepal, public institutions have become dysfunctional which has resulted into decline in the functioning of the government itself. Let us look into the moral valuing public institutions created for imparting higher education in Nepal. Tribhuvan University has been the premier public institution established in Nepal for delivering higher education.  But it is working as an incoherent and ill-organised institution without having assumed the shape of the functioning institution.    

As the institutions of higher education, Tribhuvan University has been mandated to train and supply the requisite human resources needed for the state. Deficit in governance and quality in such institutions of higher education has a telling impact on the overall effectiveness of the other core public institutions. The poor quality of education imparted in such the institutions like Tribhuvan University is engendered due to political meddling in their academic appointments and governing autonomy. 

Vested interests

Nepal has almost a dozen universities whose governance has been seen as captured for narrow political rather than academic ends.  Political consideration occupies the major driving force of university governance. University authority's political affiliations do matter than their academic credential, standing or vision. Politicians and party functionaries still see universities as critical outposts for building political clients and networks. On the surface, Nepal's universities’ governance organs appear free to make internal decisions about academic and administrative appointments. But it is not a truth in the real sense of the term. Their internal operation is dictated to serve vested interests and ends.

Oftentimes, university authorities seem to be more intolerant and less accommodative to the opinions and demands that call for accountability and result orientation. University authorities allegedly share the positions and academic appointments within the institutions based on political affiliations. Favours are directly and indirectly extended to enhance and expand patronage networks by appointing the loyalists to lucrative administrative positions or promoting them without merit. As has been stated above, institutions of higher education such as colleges and universities perform the moral valuing function of high order. If they cannot deliver properly, whole moral fabric and integrity of the governing system decays. Strengthening higher education institutions and making their delivery based on quality and well accepted standards is very crucial for the overall progress of the nation. 

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.

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