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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A 10-step plan to improve inefficient civil service in Malaysia!

A 10-step plan to excellence

Question Time By P. GUNASEGARAM

Cutting the numbers, raising salaries of good employees and emphasis on efficiency are some of the keys to improve the civil service.
FF14:  Civil Service
COMPARISONS with other countries indicate that we have too many civil servants for the population (about 25 million). Some 1.3 million civil servants, together with retirees, accounted for nearly two-fifths of the Federal Government’s operating expenditure last year of over RM150bil.

A bloated civil service not only sends the wrong message by keeping too many people unoccupied, it also leads to a considerable waste of government revenues and needlessly high expenditures which could have been better utilised elsewhere.

There are two sides to a large, inefficient civil service. As the numbers come down, you need to increase the rewards to retain the better people and improve the quality of entrants.

For illustration, if you cut the number of people in service by 50% and increase salaries by 50%, you actually save 25% in costs.

That may be too drastic a cut even for the civil service but a target to reduce it by a third over five years by natural attrition, getting rid of incompetent, lazy staff and very selective and prudent hiring is possible.

To encourage people to stay in the service and to recruit new, more able people, the salaries can potentially be raised by a third over five years.

Despite the salary increase, there will still be savings in costs of about 11% – if you don’t believe me, you can work it out yourself.

Remember too that the one-third salary increase need not be – indeed should not be – across the board.

It should be tweaked to give good ones better increases and bad ones smaller or no salary increases at all.
But this needs to be done under a clearly specified framework to prevent abuse.

As with many other institutions, the civil service has become highly politicised and some top civil servants have taken after the image of their political masters, demanding special treatment, special privileges and keeping their noses in the air.

They have come to consider themselves a law unto themselves and not only neglect the rakyat who they are supposed to serve but treat them with contempt, disdain and disrespect, leading to an outpouring of complaints against them, which they coolly ignore.

That attitude needs an about-turn.

It is therefore very timely that the Budget is now addressing some issues surrounding the civil service, including a mechanism to remove non-performers in the civil service. Hopefully, something will come out of that.

Meantime, here’s a list of 10 things which are imperative for change in the civil service and a move towards excellence.

1. Eliminate corruption and patronage. As has been pointed out, delays are in themselves a cause for corruption because people will seek to use nefarious means to avoid them, such as pay to put a file on top of the pile. While efficiency builds up, it is necessary to take a strong stand against any kind of corruption and patronage at all levels. The best way to do this is to issue a stern warning and take action against anyone found to be flouting the rules.

2. Recruit, reward and retain the best. You can’t have an excellent civil service without excellent people. You must recruit the best people, give them the right rewards and incentives and do your best to retain them by giving them more responsibilities, promoting them and giving them incentives.

3. Make service the aim. Considering the shabby treatment that many Malaysians receive at government departments, including the police, it is clear that the concept of service is alien to many civil servants. They exist for the public, not the other way around, and their assessment must include how well they satisfy the public in the performance of their service. This leads us naturally to our next point.

4. Encourage and act on public feedback. All counters which deal with the public must have ready feedback for public complaints. If a member of the public feels he has been badly treated, he must be given the immediate right to speak to a superior and make a complaint on the spot. Video cameras can be installed to help obtain the actual sequence of events. Superiors must act on public feedback and if a civil servant treats badly a member of the public, he must be punished.

5. Make it Malaysian. The statistics indicate that before 1970, the civil service was more Malaysian in that it better reflected the racial composition of the country compared to now when an estimated 80% or more of civil servants are bumiputras. This often leads to allegations of bias and a civil service that is not always sensitive to the needs of different races and cultures. Efforts should be made to recruit more non-bumiputras into all areas of the civil service. With an accompanying improvement in salary and benefits, it should not be a problem.

6. Use measurable standards. For performance appraisal, it is always good to use a measurable goal such as number of people seen in a day for a counter service, or number of projects approved. The goals will be different for different departments and for different levels within the same department but an effort should be made to quantify effort, even if work also has to be assessed qualitatively. The important thing is to keep any kind of bias out.

7. Reward good work. For any organisation to be vibrant and vital, it is important that good people are rewarded by offering them better increments, promotions and being put on the fast track for movement up the organisational ladder. That helps to ensure that as they progress, there will be increasingly better people at the top.

8. Punish poor work. The first part in dealing with poor work is to try and remedy the situation by pulling up the person, helping him, and giving him the means, the time and help necessary to do the job properly. If this does not get improvement, then it is necessary to reflect this in his benefits, clearly explaining what he will have to do to get back on the growth path. Sometimes even this fails, which leads us to the next point.

9. Get rid of deadwood and incompetence. If sufficient effort has been made to rehabilitate a worker and if that still fails, then the Government has no choice but to sack the worker. Clear procedures must be put in place so that there is no discrimination and that all inquiries are properly conducted before dismissal.

10. Keep political interference out. Sometimes, it is the politician who keeps the civil servant from performing his job. Politicians should set policy with input from the civil service and in the process they must have respect for the expertise developed within the service. Once policy is set, they must allow the civil service to implement it without hindrance, only interfering if the civil service baulks at implementing policy.

Few countries have become world class without an excellent and efficient civil service to support the transformation. If we don’t elevate our civil service significantly to much higher standards, we are all going to be losers.

> Managing editor P. Gunasegaram loves how he can renew his passport in just one hour, a clear indication that the civil service can perform.