KRISHNA GYAWALI: “Minimum government, maximum governance” was the statement of Narendra Modi on his Facebook page just 12 days before he was sworn in as independent India’s 15th Prime Minister on May 26, 2014. Explaining the slogan, Modi said that for decades the quality of the governance in India had been poor, whereas the size of the government had swollen extraordinarily.
Nepal’s case is strikingly similar. Sushil Koirala formed his reasonably small-size coalition cabinet of 21 ministers on February 25, 2014. Three months later, Modi formed his 45-member government that has been praised for being miraculously leaner for a country of 1.25 billion. Irrespective of size, scale, challenges and capabilities of the two countries’ geography, demography, economy and leadership, people’s expectations of governance from their elected leaders are a normal, predictable phenomenon on both sides of the border.
Act as Prime Minister
Soon after Koirala held the first cabinet meeting, he called government secretaries’ meeting at his office in Singh Durbar following a time-honored tradition. He addressed them with routine words, but he showed enormous confidence and determination in his speech. Secretaries were impressed with his simplicity, modesty, honesty and straight talk.
The second meeting he hosted for secretaries, some of whom had just been transferred, falling prey to new ministerial preferences, was on April 27. This meeting was more interactive and hence more productive. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, he addressed secretaries as “aadaraniya sachibjyuharu” (“respected secretaries”), and spoke hesitantly but yet meticulously on how good governance can help the cause of peace, democracy and development. He drew examples from Malaysia whose ethnic diversity and other socio-economic features are similar to Nepal’s. He urged the secretaries to take inspirations from leadership of its former charismatic Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad who had recently paid a visit to Nepal. He was of the opinion that bureaucracy should be professional and politically neutral, and advised public servants to be positive and optimistic about the country’s future.
The PM’s remarks could not be disputed. We all agreed to what he said and began to reflect on his words in silence. But then the secretaries were asked to put forth their own views, despite the time constraint. I took my turn, and stood and spoke in a firm and polite tone, mincing no words about the real-life issues that were hampering our functioning. My suggestions are now summed up in the following points:
Govt should ‘govern’
The first thing I told him was that he should act as the Prime Minister, and act assertively. Often the Prime Minister focuses on political agenda as a political leader than on governance and development, which include devoting more time to planning, strategizing, resource management, aid mobilization, corruption control, public service delivery, diplomatic relations, and investment promotion in his capacity of the country’s chief executive. We want our Prime Minister to act more as a Head of the Government, grasp the governance and development issues, and be definitive in giving us right directions.
As I have spent 17 years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Secretariat, I can say that until the inauguration of the first post-republican government in 2006, cabinet meetings used to be held every Monday and Thursday in the morning hours and the ministers were required to keep those hours free, no excuse. This has been a long-honored tradition. Now, the cabinet sits only once a week, and there are no fixed times and dates. Proposals from ministries pour in and pile up at the Chief Secretary’s desk waiting to be included in the agenda, but they hardly get their turn because of the rarity of the meetings. On the other hand, there is not enough time for cabinet members to go through the proposals seriously, again because of ‘agenda overload’. This not only affects the quality of decision-making, but also speaks of the less priority being given to cabinet meetings, the highest legitimate policymaking platform in parliamentary system.
Know your secys
Prime Minister should spend at least one hour with each secretary once a month, along with the departmental minister, chief secretary, and where feasible, his concerned official advisor. He should let secretaries speak, clear and candidly, and ask the chief secretary to note down the points. The Prime Minister’s Office should continuously evaluate the performances of secretaries based on the commitments they make in those sittings.
Focus on the core
The cabinet and its leader should concentrate on policy, legal, institutional and systemic reforms than on attending to piecemeal petitions, ribbon-cutting rituals, daily delegations and courtesy calls of little or no substance. To initiate and expedite such reforms, ministers should rely on and make their secretaries accountable. The secretaries’ evaluation should be made on the basis of ‘three-plus-one’ factors, namely, competence, image, attitude and performance. These factors should determine their appointment, placement and retention.
Ministries these days are more inclined to enjoying ‘line functions’ such as holding an endless series of meetings, issuing instructions, sending circulars, showing status, exercising authority, controlling the clients and prioritizing procedures, etc. They are pitiably weak in staff functions such as research and planning, setting reform agenda, counseling and collaborating with academics and private sector. The National Planning Commission should reinvent itself as a true think-tank-like ‘staff agency’ and focus on long-term planning and structural reforms in collaboration with the intelligentsia, civil society and business community, rather than on administration of planning and allocation of resources to appease political leaders. The Ministry of Finance should stop behaving like a Ministry of Revenue Mobilization; it should rather be renamed and reorganized into a Ministry of Economic Planning and Development.
Mr Prime Minister, you are an elected head of the government whose primary task is to improve the governability of the country. No doubt, constitution-writing is also your prime mandate, but for that there are Constituent Assembly members and their hangers-on with whom you just need to cooperate and coordinate. You should lead, govern, manage and develop the country as its chief executive to give us qualitatively different governance.
The author is a retired secretary, Government of Nepal
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