Sunday, 28 September 2008

Bhutan : Minister-Bureaucrat balance of power

27 September, 2008 - The present government was elected for the delivery of certain commitments to voters but there is a growing concern over how much control the new government has over the ‘mechanism of delivery’ - which is the civil service.

Bhutan may be the only democracy in the world where politicians have no direct hand in the termination, demotion, transfer and promotion of civil servants. That decision rests with the Royal Civil Service Commission (RCSC).

There is also no clear delineation of functions between the minister and the secretary, with both having overlapping powers. Though most ministers describe their function as that of ‘policy and plan making’ and that of the secretary as ‘implementation’, the RCSC manual describes one of the main functions of the secretary as being to ‘direct and oversee the formulation of policies and plans of the ministry’.

RCSC also says that the secretary is to receive only ‘minimum supervision’ from the ministers, cabinet, and government and that he or she should work ‘independently’.

The secretary, apart from being in-charge of administrative functions of the ministry, is also the chairman of the tender committee and the human resource committee where the minister is not involved. The secretaries also sit on several vital inter-ministerial committees and company boards making vital decisions.

As of now, the ministers or the cabinet can only make recommendations, but it is RCSC who makes the final decision.

On the unclear delineation of functions, the finance secretary Lam Dorji said: “In future, if there’s a new set of ministers, probably things may become difficult, but just now things are moving, which is important.”

Lam Dorji said that, in future, if the minister and the secretary do not get along, the secretary as head of the ministry can stop all papers at his level, which could have significant implications for the government. But he also said that the bureaucracy and the politicians could not work independently of each other. They have to work together and the secretary was accountable to his minister, he said.

On the role of politicians and secretary, the officiating prime minister Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba said: “In a democracy, the ministers are accountable to the people and the civil service is the instrument of the government to serve the people.” On the cabinet’s powers over the civil service he said: “Going by the Constitution and civil service rules, there are very serious limitations and we can’t do much by the existing system.”

The Draft Civil Service Act will be tabled in the coming November National Assembly session. Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba said that the act would undergo change. “How the civil service should function and how it should act with the government are yet to be determined.”

Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba said that that, at present, it was not a serious problem, but added that, if it was not resolved at the earliest, it could become serious in the future. The minister, however, also clarified that his party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa did not see the need for drastic change and that, at the end of the day, the system should ensure that there was no negative political influence.

ACC Chairperson Neten Zangmo said: “Independence of the civil service doesn’t mean that they totally distance themselves. Otherwise how will the system function?”

On the Draft Civil Service Act, Chief Justice Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye said that RCSC was very powerful and that parliament needed to closely look into it to ensure the interest of the people, civil service and the country.

“There’s a concentration of powers with RCSC because they have the power to make rules and regulations with no separation of policies, execution, implementation and review,” said Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye.

The chief justice said that the minister had an obligation and mandate to the people, who elected them, and that being apolitical for civil servant meant not to get involved in political affairs, but they must however follow the policies and plans of the executive.

“As per article 20 of the Constitution, the executive power shall be vested with the cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister, and as the executive they’re the political masters, not others”.

By Tenzing Lamsang

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