Issuing ‘directives’ will not work, decide and monitor!
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal loves to issue ‘directives’ (or Nirdeshanas as it is often called) to civil servants almost each time he meets them. The irony is that despite being given directives by the Prime Minister, most directives go in vain, seeing no daylight of implementation.
The reason is that ‘directives’ would not simply work under the current circumstances of Nepal which is marred by systemic and structural failure of government institutions. Directives work where the system is set on automation mode, meaning where institutions are well-run and functional, where rules and procedures are well-defined and toughly enforced, and where people driving institutions are clearly mandated and adequately resource-equipped.
Directives require vibrant institutions with dynamic leadership, and the vibrancy and dynamism presuppose three requisites: well-articulated legal mandate, sufficiently disbursed resources (physical, fiscal and human), and meaningfully enforced accountability mechanism (to bring the non-performer or wrong-performer to book of justice). Nepalese government institutions are short on all or most of these rudiments at all or most times, so they seem incapable to undertake the implementation of directives that come even from the Prime Minister’s level.
So, Mr Prime Minister, you better change course! Individual directives should give way to decisions that are collectively taken, involving all actors in the decision-making and implementation process. If you make a decision bringing all relevant actors on board, listen to their part of the story for implementation – real hurdles on the ground and the ways to solve them, and also make yourself part of the implementation mechanism, such decisions can be monitored and persons responsible for implementation, including the one who decides can be accounted for.
Take an example. The PM calls an urgent meeting of the minister and secretary in charge of urban development, the chief secretary, chief of the Kathmandu metropolitan city (KMC), and also the head of the waste management body. He discusses a focused agenda of how the waste littered on the streets of Kathmandu can be managed to keep the city clean. He listens to each official on the issues that are keeping them from taking action (mandate? resources? capability? accountability mechanism? incentives? enforcement? compliance?). He takes decisions to develop an immediate action plan that defines the roles and responsibilities of each of the signatories to the minutes, and finally, he makes them accountable and answerable to the inaction or willful default. Now, people can see that there is at least a ‘decision’ that involves decision-makers as signatories to the minuted promises. Such decision can be made monitorable and decision-makers can be made accountable.
But compare this with issuing directives with no written set of instructions for official documentation and record, just the way earlier Rana rulers and Panchayat-era ‘feudocrats’ used to issue decrees. Can you expect anyone to comply with such directives and orders? Because there is no ownership and commitment ensured on the part of implementers, and because the one who issued directives may have done so just for public consumption, such directives risk outright dismissal or silent refusal to comply with. Neither the directive-giver nor the directive-taker will pay serious attention to the implementation of such directives, and in no time will they be forgotten by the public. As the saying goes, ‘public memory is short-lived’.
Nepalese bureaucracy is by no means incompetent, but it is strikingly underperforming. It has all the potential and capabilities needed to perform, at least at the individual level. But mostly, it has not performed up to the mark letting people-at-large deeply down and frustrated. Why did this happen? Because despite being potent and competent, it lacks or is far short of sufficient legal mandate (note that bureaucrats love to work under formal mandate prescribed by laws – acts, rules, by-rules, etc.), adequate resources (including people with positive attitude and proven track record, besides the needed budget, equipment and conducive work climate), and clearly spelt out accountability framework (provisioning enforceable incentives and disincentives).
When it comes to the capability of Nepalese public institutions, we can see that individuals have been largely capacitated utilising state/donor resources (spending huge resources in the name of ‘capacity development’). But that capacity has not reached the institutional level yet. As a consequence, an interesting ‘capacity paradox’ has emerged, with individuals earning capacity at the cost of institutions. This is just like the ‘prosperity paradox’ where persons grow richer leaving the country living at the morass of poverty. Unfortunately, Nepal has been home to both paradoxes.
How to make institutions capable to perform and deliver? The answer lies in a twofold approach. First, the capability that currently exists at the individual level should be transferred to the team or a collectivity of like-minded individual performers. If and when the team becomes stronger, delivery by the institutions will gradually improve. Individuals would start working in the team with ‘recognition and achievement incentives’ because no one is perfect in his or her portfolio. They need collaboration, synergy, and shared learnings and practices to achieve harmonised results. This team culture will ultimately strengthen institutions and enhance their capability to deliver.
Capability to deliver. Not the capability to design. We Nepalese are perceived to be good at planning but bad at implementation. It is ironical to admit that Aaron Wildavsky’s “Why planning fails in Nepal?” published in Administrative Science Quarterly some 45 years ago is still largely valid. He analysed the causes and came to the conclusion that it is the ‘implementation capability’ of institutions that is largely responsible. But I would add one more dimension to this diagnosis, and that is, ‘unhelpful implementation environment’. Even if our institutions gradually grow capable to implement plans and programs, the negative externalities arising from political chaos and instability would create obstacles. Therefore institutions should be erected in such a manner that they are not shaken and shattered by any external shocks, mainly unwarranted political interventions. For this, a strong legal shield should be created to protect institutions and to make them resilient and resistant to fight such interventions.
So, just issuing directives will not do the trick to solve problems, paying attention to strengthening institutions by mandating, resource-equipping and holding them accountable for the results would do. Does the Prime Minister care?
Krishna Gyawali, Secretary, Ministry of Industry