Friday, 3 December, 2021
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OPINION

Civil Service In A Quandary



Civil Service In A Quandary

Mukti Rijal

The government withdrew the Federal Civil Service Bill lying pending in the national parliament for more than two and half years last fortnight. It was done since the new government that took office three and a half months ago seems to be in a predicament as to how to steer the process of converting the bill into the law. As the parliament has been prorogued, the other day, speculations are also rife that the government is contemplating to bring it into effect by issuing an ordinance. Some issues are, of course, very ticklish which have made it difficult for the successive governments to thrash out them and arrive at consensual decision.
As reported in the media, issues like the role of civil servants' unions and associations, age-bar for retirement from civil service, recruitment, relationship and accountability of the civil servants to three tier governments – federal, province and local – had been disputed in the relevant committee of the parliament when it was debated in the past. However, in the overall terms, the problematic issue that has delayed the process of parliamentary ratification is what is generally known as increased blurring of demarcation between politics and administration. The relationship between politics and administration has been a tricky subject in several democratic countries in the world.

Contentious issue
This has turned out to be a contentious issue in Nepal where federalism has been implemented without a well thought out strategy and effective administrative reorganisation in line with the constitutional and governing principles of the federal polity. Needless to say, Nepal has continued with the unified system of bureaucratic organisation with the central government keeping the unqualified authoring in recruiting, deploying, rewarding and punishing civil servants across the tiers .

Though centralised bureaucracy was instituted and practiced at the time when the country was run according to the unitary state system, this cannot be appropriate to the federal structure of the state. The debate in the parliament revolved around some principled issues before it was dissolved. Some parliamentarians had been in favour of keeping central control over sub-national bureaucracy while other lawmakers had been opposed to it due to the fact that this tends to repeat and recommit, among others, the past centralised unitary practice. Today state (Pradesh) and local level key bureaucrats are recruited and administered from the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration without any consultation with and concurrence of the state (Pradesh) and local governments.

This has infringed upon the self-rule and shared rule principle of federalism. In fact, both state (Pradesh) and local government should be practically enabled to exercise authority and autonomous space to set terms to hire and retrench the civil servants to work under their respective purview. The civil servants are seemingly in favour of continuing their administrative control and answerability to the central agencies which they perceive will safeguard their interests. The court ruling widely discussed during these days has also lent succor to this bureaucratic perspective as it has revoked the adjustment of some of the civil personnel at the sub-national level arguing that they were adjusted for the federal level.

The court ruling has been contested as it prejudices and goes against the spirit of federalisation and the administrative reorganisation of the state. As shared to this author by the Speakers of Province Assemblies from Lumbini and Karnali provinces, the other day, Nepal's federalisation process has hit a snags especially due to the issues related with the administrative devolution and personnel management. This has strained relations between the provinces and federal government.

As the several functions that used to be planned and implemented at the central level have been constitutionally assigned to the provinces and local governments, sub national capacity to implement newly devolved functions needs to be enhanced. This capacity can be bolstered only if the adequacy of trained and competent personnel, among others, is provided under the purview of the sub national government.
However, contrary to the spirit of federalism, the bloated volume of the civil bureaucracy to the tune of forty-five thousand is being retained with the federal government. Since the constitution limits the number of ministries and departments at the federal level, the size of bureaucracy will have to be thoroughly downsized through the fresh organization and management survey but it appears that it is not going to take place.

Resistance
The top heavy bureaucratic structures are being kept without being restructured. The elite personnel embedded at the central bureaucracy have resisted in joining in to work under the purview of sub-national government. In fact, Nepal’s bureaucracy is yet to adapt itself to the Max Weberian parameters characterised by legal-rational authority system. The legal-rational authority system encompasses the fundamentals such as defined competence, selection by merit and achievement, impersonal operations, separation of public funds from private use and so on.
Conversely, the bureaucracy is beholden to party politics and fragmented along the partisan lines. The civil bureaucracy is swallowing a bigger chunk of the national revenue indicated by ever growing size of the recurring expenditure. Even then it has failed miserably to perform minimally according to expectations. It is often seen that the bureaucrats follow signals of partisan politics in contravention of the norms of neutrality and non-partisanship. Unless bureaucracy is made result-oriented and citizen-centric, the devolved structural and functional arrangements at province and local level will make no sense for the common people.

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