To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.” And so it has been with the public service reform in Malaysia. In many ways Malaysia can count public service improvements as one of its greatest success stories.
The singular goal of these reforms has been to improve public services so that the public enjoys faster, quality and affordable public services while businesses prosper through the creation of a business-friendly environment.
Civil servants reciting their pledge in Putrajaya. The civil service, with 800 agencies and 1.6 million employees, has come a long way.
The public service has sought to improve itself in many ways and often.
Since Independence, it has introduced a smorgasbord of reforms that has been wide-ranging in nature.
The public service has ensured that it obtains value for money through the development of performance-based budgeting systems.
These systems help determine departmental budgets based on planned results.
Related are accounting reforms and performance management systems such as citizen’s charter, performance scorecards and star-ratings of agency performance.
To ensure service quality, ISO, total quality management and the cutting of red tape have become mainstays in public management. In tandem, remuneration structures have been revised to reflect pay for performance.
Privatisation of service-oriented departments has restructured the public service. To ensure readier and speedier access to public services while making the public service more efficient, electronic government came into vogue in the 1990s.
Upon assuming the premiership, Datuk Seri Najib Razak wanted service improvements to be “bold and courageous”. “I don’t believe in incremental change,” he said.
Thus, was born the tagline: 1Malaysia, People First, and Performance Now. Soon after, the government and economic transformation programmes were rolled out.
Key performance indicators and targets are now imposed upon ministers to challenge them to higher levels of performance. Urban and rural transformation centres dot the country, bringing public services nearer to the people and under one roof.
The reform effort has not petered out. It continues unabated, just as the waves that wash ashore. While there is no real evaluation of their impact, taken collectively and cumulatively, these reforms have improved public services.
They have transformed the public service into a far more efficient machine. Like the waves that with each gentle swash push the tidal mark further ashore, so too have these improvements taken the public service to higher levels of excellence.
Witness below a sample of the achievements that the country has garnered through public service improvements.
Malaysia ranks as the 14th most competitive nation in the world. It is the sixth most business-friendly and eighth most efficient government globally according to the 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Report.
Malaysia, too, ranks a commendable 53rd out of 184 countries in the UN e-government development index with 83 per cent of its public services available online.
And, Malaysia is 32nd in the global innovation index. These achievements should make the public service proud. However, it is not a ticket to rest on its laurels.
Public service improvements need to go further. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, the public service has promises to keep, and many more miles to go before it sleeps. Churchill has also remarked: “Change is the best kind of rest.”
So, if the public service wants to find rest then change it must, and constantly. For as Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher believed: “The only thing that is constant is change.”
Here are three areas where the public service can toughen its reformist mettle for improved public services.
FIRST, apart from tinkering with systems and processes, the public service should focus on productivity improvements through, among others, rationalising its establishment.
The public service comprises some 800 agencies and 1.6 million employees. While such a size may be necessary to serve a burgeoning population, there must be surely room for an overhaul. It is untenable to argue that the public service size is no more bloated than other public services abroad.
We should strive to make government work better without costing more. It will certainly be more responsive to the citizenry if the weighty bureaucracy is made nimbler and less blunder-prone.
SECOND, life-time employment in the public service does not exactly create the right atmosphere for questioning and fresh ideas.
Cautious people, seeking to preserve their jobs seldom effect change. It is too costly and legally difficult to sack underperformers.
The government did toy with the idea of placing ministry heads on three-year contracts renewable on exceptional performance, in the way other countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand have recast their public service. Whatever happened to that initiative!
Having the right staff matters. Higher starting salaries and performance-related pay can attract new talent that inject fresh vigour to service delivery. The remuneration structure therefore requires further rework.
THIRD, the public service lacks an evaluation culture. Without “sunset” clauses that require an evaluation of outcomes after a certain period of implementation, programmes and policies assume a life of their own bereft of the benefits of a review of their performance, let alone their utility.
This calls for a hard-nosed and, even better, independent scrutiny of public programmes on what is being achieved from spending taxpayers’ money.
The public service, with some of the hardest-working public servants in the world, has done well thus far. But greater things have yet to be done.
If it is of any comfort, the public service is reminded of the words of Machiavelli, a 15th century Italian diplomat and writer, in his well-known book, The Prince: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.”