By Shaza Onn. First published in The Edge 15 December 2014

Year in and year out the Auditor General’s Report features the same reason for poor public service delivery – the underwhelming capabilities of government officers. So as prison wardens would say, “it’s time for a shakedown buckos”.

A few weeks ago the third series of the AG’s report was released and though there was less hype and not to mention drama over its findings, the message was clear. The people managing large multi-million ringgit public projects are severely unprofessional. And what does this unprofessionalism mean? It means shoddy compliance of procurement procedures, mismanagement of finances, weak project management and inadequate monitoring of projects. These trends also surface in not only the AG’s Report but also in the findings of the Public Accounts Committee as well as the Public Complaints Bureau Annual Report. Cringingly, the AG’s Report attributes these problems to a simple lack of experience and skills with no real call for reprimand save for Heads of Departments to monitor the officers better. Reality check, this is really inexcusable.

To be fair the government has attempted to introduce several measures to reform the civil service. The Economic Transformation Programme includes public service delivery (PSD) as part of its key strategy. PSD for instance, includes real time performance monitoring systems that focuses on the performance and efficiency of individual officers. Delivery here is key and one would assume that this would mean better performance as officers come under closer scrutiny. Nevertheless, civil service reforms will be insufficient and ineffective unless the government addresses the proverbial elephant in the room.

And I daresay they have at least 3 elephants at the moment. This has to do with reprimanding under-performing civil servants, hiring and rewarding talents based on meritocracy as well as the management of talents already within civil service:

1. Uncompetitive Firing

Let’s start with the biggest bullet of them all, firing uncompetitive civil servants. I am sure many of us have heard of horror stories with civil servants not showing up to work and where at worst these individuals get placed into cold storage rather than simply getting fired. Keeping these individuals does two things: firstly, it makes the civil service look bad which denigrates the efforts of hardworking and honest civil servants. Secondly, it simply results in poor public service delivery. The procedure to fire a civil servant starts with a Letter of Order to return to duty by the Head of Department, followed by a formal report to the Disciplinary Board if the officer fails to comply. Failing either actions a notice is published on a National language paper and finally a declaration of dismissal is made if the officer has not returned to work after seven days of the notice. It is important to note that this is sequential, if at any point an officer returns to work the process may start again. But the bigger question is how many notices have you seen in the papers?

2. Competitive Hiring and Promotions

Competitive hiring has seen improvements. Currently, there is leeway for those in the private sector to join the public service in top and mid-career positions. The government has also started absorbing top JPA scholars into ministries. This can only be further enhanced by formalising the competitive recruitment of officers instead of government acting as the employer of last resort. Tying salaries and bonuses to merit rather than yearly, across the board bonuses and fixed compensation will make the civil service more attractive. On promotions, perhaps seniority should not be the main consideration. Officers trained under the National Institute for Public Administration (INTAN) have a fast track option but the performance monitoring system can play a bigger role in determining promotions based on an officer’s delivery.

3. Encouraging Specialisation and Retaining Specialists

Another unspoken problem is talent management in ministries. To be sure, mid-ranking officers are encouraged to further their studies and even have to justify how their post-graduate degree will benefit the ministry at a later time. But when they come out with those degrees, these officers are often transferred into another department or worse another ministry altogether. There is no real logic behind this and it certainly demoralizes the individual who has worked hard in order to specialise. It calls to meaning the AG Report’s findings on the lack of skills and expertise amongst officers as a reason why procedures and policies had not been adhered to, before officers can even build the capacity and skill set they are already moved to a totally different field. This is why IDEAS has promoted a professional track for procurement officers in its policy paper, the same could be applied for officers in all ministries. One thinks, given government’s commitment to improving public services that it is about time it does something real about these elephants in the room. Reform or lose credibility at the expense of Malaysia’s vision of progress.

A version of this article was published in the The Edge Newspaper.

Shaza Onn is a senior researcher at the Political Economy and Governance Unit of IDEAS

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