Sustained economic growth, ongoing political stability and Sheikh Hasina's development focus are prompting the nation to dream of becoming a developed country by 2041. However, development process is an arduous journey. Any mistake can spoil whatever the nation achieved to date instead of further prosperity. Owning mega projects can become a national burden, if not implemented and managed with care. Therefore, good governance through competent bureaucratic leadership is essential in delivering development programmes.
Political leadership outlines the development policy, while bureaucracy implements it. Yet, the failure of bureaucracy makes the political leadership accountable and leaves the whole nation indebted. Therefore, political leadership must develop an honest and skilled bureaucracy by ensuring best use of the national talent pool.
The current bureaucracy, originated during the colonial era, is widely considered as mammoth in size, top-heavy in structure, coterie in thought, deficient in professionalism, poor in intellect, authoritarian in attitude, extreme in protocol and so on. Yet, the country could move forward, by overcoming a lot of challenges, since a section of the bureaucracy is honest, competent and meritorious. However, to ensure sustainable development the above concerns need to be addressed through comprehensive reforms following the bureaucratic models of developed countries.
Different ministries are now overwhelmed with a large number of Joint Secretaries and Additional Secretaries. The usual pyramidal organisation structure has collapsed with impacts like hundreds of officers made OSD (officer on special duty), gross corruption and poor delivery of public services. In consequence, police and other cadres demanded for a huge number of supernumerary positions. Day by day, this situation has emerged as a kind of obstacle in the path of development and good governance that needs to be resolved soon.
Senior leadership is the driving force of any organisation. Nationally most promising leaders, working in various ministries, departments, institutions and enterprises, shall be considered for recruitment in these positions. Only they are able to ensure uninterrupted and public-oriented development. However, in many instances, the less qualified person becomes the head of the department as a result of promotion on the basis of seniority assigned at the entry level of the cadre or service. Again, appointment in the highest post is often made for a few weeks or months, like a musical chair, because of close retirement dates of the officers. It may not hamper the routine activities of the department, but there is no room left for creativity or entrepreneurial activities.
As part of wider administrative reforms, deputy secretary or equivalent positions can be designated as the highest level of permanent position in the bureaucracy. Merit, seniority and workplace achievement can be combinedly considered for promotion in the permanent establishment with opportunity to employment for the retirement age limit.
Joint Secretary/equivalent and the above positions shall be appointed on a contractual basis for a defined tenure, for example, 3 years, by selecting officers through open competition. The contract can be renewed for quality performance, else the contract can be cancelled beforehand. A qualified officer can go up in the leadership career over the time, while the less qualified one is wiped out. Eventually, only the most qualified, forward looking and honest officers will adorn the highest government positions. Not only in the developed countries, even in many third world countries, top bureaucrats are appointed in this process.
To ensure appointment of the best national talents in the top bureaucracy, apart from cadre services executives from the non-cadre services, private sectors and expatriates shall also be given opportunity to compete. Recruitment process and training programmes need to be developed accordingly. The appointment of most qualified executives will ensure delivery of government development programmes effectively. The new approach would help alleviate the ongoing excitement of Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) examination preparation over years by leaving aside the actual studies, which is depriving the country from getting a good number of qualified professionals, academics and scientists.
Due to the long recruitment process and years of preparation by many, the BCS exam has created a kind of unequal competition environment. As a result, most of the top local talents from different universities are giving more importance to moving abroad. The pursuit of good results in honours and master's courses, and preparation for various competency tests and research proposal writing for higher education abroad do not give them enough time to get ready for the BCS examination.
Almost all of them secured honourable occupation after a long struggle in the foreign land. But, very few of them can overcome the challenges of different language, culture, ethnicity, religion etc. to step into higher leadership positions. However, the education, work experience and values learned in the developed countries make some of them highly competent and interested to return to the homeland and work in the leadership positions. Therefore, opportunities need to be created for them.
Similar to the World Bank's Young Professionals programme, a special package can be initiated to attract high calibre graduates in the government service. For example, considering the standard of the university, etc., only a few of the best graduates from the latest batch of different departments can be allowed in a special recruitment test every year. Examination will be such that participants with real talent and leadership qualities can be selected and start work within two to three months of their graduation.
The appointment can be made for a period of five years for maximum 10 per cent of the first-class entry-level positions (grade 9) of a cadre or department. They can basically be deployed to assist senior officials in areas such as departmental policy research, development programme formulation, work quality standard development and control, review of designs/reports submitted by the consultants etc. The services of the active fresh graduates can help in improvement of the departments/services greatly. Usually, enough number of qualified and interested officers are not found in the regular establishment for these services. As a result, the nation suffers from poor deliveries such as construction of Malibagh flyover project with exits on the wrong side.
The special recruits can become regular through the BCS examination without any seniority privilege for continuity in the job. There will be no promotion as well during the five years period. However, they can be given special allowances and benefits outside the pay scale similar to Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The experience of the government job may give them the interest and ability to work in future contractual leadership positions.
Various incentives should be provided to create future leaders from the regular government officers pool too. Instead of pleasure trip type training, government officers can be given very liberal secondment or lien opportunities to work overseas and gain experience. Government can also arrange overseas employment of qualified officers in different development countries through bilateral agreements. It is noted that Sri Lankan government sends doctors to developed countries to learn ethical medical practice and it is a requirement to become a specialist doctor there. As a result, the health service of the country developed significantly.
The existing quasi-feudal culture of Bangladesh is a major obstacle to administrative reform. For example, would it be easier to accept the few, who move into the contract-based senior positions, by a large number of batchmates remaining in the permanent establishment? Especially, when the number of positions in the upper ranks will be greatly reduced, and there will be no supernumerary or OSD positions. For this reason, there must be a time-befitting change in the government's rules and regulations. For example, irrespective of cadre or position someone equal or older in age, who has the minimum qualification to rise to the upper ranks, should be relieved of humiliating matters, such as showing honour by standing up and offering own chair or addressing 'sir'. It should be noted that there is no 'sir' word in the world-famous Bangladeshi NGO BRAC. There, even a swiper can easily address the founder Sir Fazle Hossain Abed as Bhai.
We also have to value personal expectations and emotions. Irrespective of hierarchy, all jobs should be viewed equally for the particular roles served. In the developed world, many people do not try for higher position despite having necessary qualification because of personal interest, job security, family needs, work environment, physical and mental health, etc. Some even deliberately leave a higher rank to join in a lower rank. So, the boss of yesterday becomes a subordinate today. This phenomenon seldom brings any frustration in their minds. Eventually, the nation gets famed artists, writers, players, organisers, scientists, etc. from this soul-searching cohort. We should keep in mind that to be a developed nation we need to develop conduct and thinking as well.
Any reform is an unpopular issue irrespective of time and place. Sometimes, even though there is no apparent loss of interest, there are still obstacles. However, the government must be strict in this regard in the interest of the country. There is hardly any time left to think twice in view of our fast pace to be a developed nation by 2041, which is only 22 years away!
Dr. Shafiq Alam, BCS (RHD), FIEAust CPEng IntPE(Aus), is a Columnist and Infrastructure Specialist.