Shifting Bureaucratic Politics
Dev Raj Dahal
Bureaucracy pervades every aspect of Nepali life. Competent bureaucracy applies rational rules of the Constitution to maximise efficiency, avoid anarchy, maintain discipline and serves as frontline agency of development. Its authority, derived from rules, regulations and rationality, ends uncertainty. Technical skills and specialisation enable it to execute vital tasks. Nepal’s transition from neo-liberal to social welfare state has amplified the role of bureaucracy in development though it now faces structural, management, ethical and governance challenges. Orientation of Nepali bureaucracy to a culture of responsibilisation is central to devolve power to sub-national units and shift patrimonial authority to responsive and service-oriented one that is truly faithful to resiliently rebuilding of the nation. Ironically, the nexus of state bureaucracy and party bureaucracy is spawning a paralysis of impersonal power of Nepali state and its citizens. Breaking this nexus is a key to separate the territory of politics and bureaucracy, sustain performance and free both from crude totalism.
The unsettling shake-up of federal, provincial and local administration on matters of tax authority, transfer of personnel, management and resource allocation fed strain in their roles. The execution of Civil Servant Adjust Act hit a snag as the art of governing is rife with political inertia and poor coordination of the state and non-government institutions, provinces and local bodies. The supply of 45,815 personnel to the federal level, 16,670 to the provincial level and 57,766 to local units by this month may knit fresh structural fitness but in no way it secures desirable performance unless Nepali politics acts as a cog of polity governed by law. Local bodies need 10,000 officials to ease efficient service delivery. The centre, in a positive sign, has asked for their needs and abolished 500 superfluous offices.
Democratic impetus marked the decline of traditional lord and the rise of bureaucratic elite. Foreign aid accompanied with it pumped many modernisation ideals. But it devalued indigenous knowhow and experience. Alien values, ideas and theories of administration and management became best practices. It expanded bureaucracy, centralised the polity, decoupled policy from legislative privilege, defined ideological determination of progress and stoked public expectations beyond bureaucratic ability to fulfil. The state’s investment in think tanks, exposure and training of civil servants can help them craft context-sensitive policies while ethical education can shift it from self-ascendance to task success.
Nepal’s politics of development marshalled by new public administration, devolution and citizens’ participation in local governance suffered from the virus of paternalistic culture while the vehicles of market-driven public management via private sector, NGOs and civil society and de-bureaucratisation broke Nepali state’s ability to enforce discipline and authority to keep public order. Reinventing government has confiscated the state’s role in progress and bound it to outsource tasks to sub-national units, private sector and NGOs. The new public management of economy, efficiency and competition in service delivery among these institutions revealed the idea of good governance. Still, civil servants combat a harsh battle against political leaders’ claim for the “primacy of politics” in democracy though it was dominated by their rivalry for sharing the spoils of office. The fading bureaucratic standards abridged its entrepreneurial talent.
The rollback of Nepali state fed authority vacuum in society and unrolled the manoeuvres of supranational actors. But Nepali leaders’ struggle to transform bureaucracy from domination and administration to a provider of basic public goods to citizens remains. The partisan bureaucracy appeared patrimonial existing for the empire building of party politics and unable to regulate feudal status groups and modern associational ones and mark the transition from hierarchy to flexible network. As a result, Nepal’s public order suffers from growing expectation of citizens and declining public goods owing to under-production, undersupply and outreach bottlenecks.
Bureaucracy’s meritocratic selection from the incubus of Public Service Commission autonomous of social classes presumes it to act in a neutral style. Organised hierarchically and span of control, it offers policy inputs and executes decisions. In Nepal, however, the link of policy making to its execution is shaky, breeding a tension between bureaucracy and democracy, legal-rational bureaucracy and reliance of bureaucrats on politicians to curry favour and between personal loyalty to higher officials for self-promotion and fair service to citizens. As a result, Nepal failed to make many civil servants loyal to the state proscribing those holding DV, PR and Green Card of foreign nations.
Ethical duty entails them to become non-partisan and is paid pension after retirement. Nepal has enacted social inclusion and gender equality in all governing institutions and expanded citizens’ rights, including the right to work, social justice and accepted international obligations. They leave no choice for civil servants to muddle around but provide services via smaller institutions incentivised by market and non-market agencies. This crisis-management approach also failed to get structural change and carry out tasks. It needs to beat underproduction, skewed distribution of services and bridge progress and peace gaps.
An impersonal bureaucracy with entrepreneurial roles makes democracy functional because it promotes public interest, decentralises the services to citizens and ameliorates injustice.
There is, however, a tension between cross- parties’ collusion for power-sharing, distribution of patronage and clientalisation of citizens and bureaucratic imperative of consistency, order and stability. The democratic spirit of communication has unleashed a new politics of self-governance entailing political and administrative power morally accountable to the public. This can move Nepali bureaucracy from civic atrophy to a more redistributive regime and make service delivery competitive with multiple suppliers where ordinary citizens have better choices.
No Nepali should lack food, shelter, education, healthcare and dignity of work. It is vital to have a universal minimum standard of living, with certain minimum income, social wage and social security. The outreach of Nepali bureaucracy is all over the nation compared with other non-state actors. Yet, many Gaon Palikas do not have ample experienced officials and infrastructures to do administrative, service and development functions. Backward areas lack qualified technocrats and entrepreneurs to dynamise the society. Some practical strategies need to be crafted to enable public service get high standards of fairness and remain accountable to democratic will. The new generation of civil servants needs personal capacity to assume their roles, address democratic dividends, urbanisation, municipalisation and generational problems and build an interface of state with citizens. Management of new technology can ease communication and feedback between them. Many civil servants with high political nexus nurse loop with top party leaders, donors, INGOs and private sectors and feel no obligation to perform and take on collaborative problem solving. The local institutions of education, health, agriculture, industries, cooperatives and user’s groups must coordinate their services, organise public hearing and engage citizens in public action for tangible outcome.
Nepali bureaucracy’s autonomy entails national integrity and its ability to defy undue pressure. Contrary to Civil Service Act which bars civil servant to become a member of any political party and advocate its ideology and interests, party affiliated unions flout this code. Likewise, rent-seeking trend in land registration, revenue and transportation departments and delay in development projects have stained its image beyond the power of courts, anti-corruption watchdog and Auditor-General’s Office to cleanse. Incentives are distorted de-motivating their esprit de corps in performance. When non-performance has no cost, it drains public trust and clogs the will to serve. Its efficiency can be greased by apt reforms in recruitment, career promotion, training on sub-politics of policy, information, planning, resource mobilisation and allocation, technological promotion and governance. But so long as it faces usual reshuffle in each regime change much vaunted progress will face an uphill task.
Absence of institutional memory and weak analytic capacity mar their ability in coping problems. Realisation of constitutional vision calls for wise leadership who can entrench fellow-feeling in bureaucracy. Today’s civil servants of Nepal are better educated, well qualified and highly skilled but they are consumer of policy, harbour professional jealousy and indulge in unhealthy competition for career enhancement. The huge clout of non-sovereigns and their domination of public life have flagged its confidence. Bridging the trust of public officials and citizens hungry to think and act for themselves can ease the lack of public goods. The awareness of Citizen Charter, public hearing, social audit and active citizenship can make it transparent and accountable. But owing to its party-affiliation and erosion of professionalism, a progressive shift to service delivery, outreach in society and ramp up efforts to gain ideas, resources and capacities to promote citizens’ good life totter.
The high concentration of bureaucracy in urban nodes hampered the supply delivery on the ground. The deficits of technical and administrative personnel and finance can be solved if bottom-up monitoring agency, performance oversight and accountabilities are placed. Nepal’s numerous administrative reform commissions have sought to streamline bureaucracy attuned to zeitgeist enabling it to respond to rights of citizens. The skewed political will has cramped the execution of those reforms, follow the rules in recruitment, promotion and dismissal and shift to efficient service delivery.
The insertion of union politics into bureaucracy for free collective bargaining has de-motivated them to do public service and flagged in routine needs of citizens from birth registration, public utility service to infrastructure support. The bureaucratic glitches unveiled their collusion with politicians, business and consultancy firms which have limped their ability to use their position for public service, manage change, enable governance achieve its fundamental goals and build capacity to deliver basic public goods at low cost which ordinary Nepalis can easily afford.