Our civil service needs an overhaul

Our civil service needs an overhaul

The role of civil servants in the prospective constitution has drawn public attention amid speculation the new system will give greater power to bureaucrats. Although the constitution drafters have tried to allay concerns that bureaucrats would receive more authority at the expense of politicians, the debate reveals deep public scepticism on whether civil servants will be able to lead the country towards the desired reform.

The country's civil servants have been known to work in a status-quo environment for decades. But a series of recent incidents has shown the desperate need to reform the sector.

For instance, the government’s management of its personnel was the centre of the recent controversy at the Department of Civil Aviation, which has been criticised for its inability to cope with the rapid growth of the airline industry. The International Civil Aviation Organisation cited the department’s lack of personnel as one of its concerns about the supervision of Thailand's airline industry.

The launch of the Asean Economic Community at the end of this year will also raise the expectations placed on our public institutions to maintain the country's competitive standing amid huge social, economic and political changes. If they fail, Thailand will be left at a significant disadvantage on the regional playing field.

Government agencies tend to respond to these criticisms by saying they don’t have the budget to acquire necessary resources.

The fundamental issue, however, is not the lack of money but the mismanagement of existing personnel, which hinders the civil service reform process — as shown in the Thailand Future Foundation survey released earlier this year.

The survey showed the number of personnel hired by the government sector rose by almost 50% between 2004 and 2013, to about 2.2 million. The government has barely increased the number of permanent civil servants in the past decade, in line with its policy to streamline operations. But almost every government agency broadened its payroll by hiring employees on various long-term contracts.

Consequently, the government’s personnel budget has risen almost threefold in 10 years — it now stands at about 7% of GDP, compared with 6% in Malaysia, 5% in the Philippines and 3% in Singapore, according to the Thailand Future Foundation. In short, our public institutions have not been transformed into the lean and efficient operation they were supposed to be.

At the same time, the number of high-level officials, or C9 upward (the highest rank is C-11), doubled over the same period. The increased number of high-level officials translates to a greater salary burden for the government and risks a shortage of staff at the working level.

The overall efficiency of Thailand’s public institutions has dropped by international measurements, too. According to the World Economic Forum's 2012 Global Competitive Report, “one of the biggest areas of concern is the efficiency of its [Thailand's] public institutions, which has been deteriorating over the past three years". WEF ranked Thailand 74th out of 196 countries in this category, revealing the need for drastic reform of the civil service to meet the rapidly changing social, political and economic environment.

This reform does not mean increasing budgets or employee numbers. In fact, Singaporean government officials have been recognised for their efficiency with far fewer staff than their Thai counterparts.

The real reform must begin with the changing of individual mindsets and organisational values.

Unlike the private sector, public institutions tend to have inefficient evaluation systems to measure their work performance. Promotions are not always based on performance. Rampant nepotism discourages people from improving their skills and capacity to work; Thai public institutions are ranked 93 in the world for nepotism by the WEF, just ahead of India (94) and behind Malawi (92).

Government officials should work to empower the community, helping to bridge the prosperity gap which is a significant source of political tension. Public institutions are the main mechanism for supporting decentralisation and encouraging people to have a bigger say in the country's future.

Thai public institutions have fallen short of accomplishing these assignments. Various recent news reports show that people in the community, particularly in rural areas, are not convinced that officials are working to serve the public's best interests.

The public debate on whether the new charter should give more power to bureaucrats reveals Thais' ambivalent feelings about the efficiency of our civil servants.

Some civil servants and bureaucrats are resistant to change. But civil servants can help Thailand achieve positive changes by providing operational support for the system. It requires their determination, not big government, to realise true reform.

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