The executive branch of the state is mainly run by a public administration apparatus comprising civil officers and employees, who implement the policies and programmes of the government. In effect, it plans, organises, directs, coordinates and controls administrative activities and remains responsible and accountable for executive actions. In case of a democracy, the civil servants have to carry out official responsibilities while remaining respectful to the eminence and democratic rights-cum-privileges of the citizens.
Public administration in Bangladesh is basically composed of two tiers. The higher rung consists of the central secretariat - the ministries and divisions - which are in charge of framing policies and taking decisions at the centre. On the other hand, different sub-ordinate offices and departments that deliver services to the public at the field level comprise the lower rung of public administration.
The cultivation of integrity and ethics at different levels of public management plays a vital role in establishing good governance. The Government of Bangladesh framed a National Integrity Strategy in 2012 for ensuring good governance in both the state and non-state domains. Overall, the strategy emphasises the importance of integrity in 10 state and 6 (six) non-state institutions, of which the executive organ or public administration is a major one. The other state institutions are the parliament, judiciary, Election Commission, Attorney General's Office, Public Service Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the local governments. The non-state institutions are political parties, private industrial-cum-commercial organisations, the civil society including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), educational institutions, the media and the family. It is unfortunate that though seven years have elapsed since the framing of the strategy, no evaluation exercise has been undertaken on its implementation apart from an internal review by the Cabinet Division back in 2013.
In this backdrop, the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International (TIB) published its own assessment of the status of national integrity strategy through a report released in late June this year. There are 11 components in the National Integrity Strategy related to public administration, of which 5 (five) are short-term and 6 (six) are medium- and long-term ones. The first short-term strategy was submission of wealth statement by government employees every five years, which is stipulated by the Conduct Rules of 1979. But this has not been complied with. Although most civil servants submit their wealth statement alongside annual income tax returns, the citizens do not have the right to seek information about those. Therefore, the conduct rules need to be revised for attuning it with the needs of time.
The second short-term strategy was the enforcement of Public Interest Information Disclosure (Protection) Act 2011. But although 8 (eight) years have elapsed, there has been no instance of any complaints filed under it until now. The reasons identified include lack of awareness about the law among a section of civil servants, absence of a supportive environment, lack of confidence, risk of facing harassment etc. Besides, the court may divulge the identity of complainant as per law, which acts as a disincentive for potential whistleblowers.
The grievance redress system was introduced through issuance of a guideline by the cabinet division in 2015 (revised in 2018). The citizens, officials or organisations can file complaints through a uniform procedure under it if they are dissatisfied with any service. Of the 2,313 complaints sent to the ministry of public administration between 2009 and 2017, 2309 have been disposed of. A total of 415 disciplinary cases were lodged based on these complaints. From these, 188 officials were acquitted, 117 were awarded minor punishments and 63 major punishments. Forty-seven cases remain unresolved. The officials arrested by the Anti-Corruption Commission based on complaints of irregularities and corruption stood at 168, 87, and 27 in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively. The challenge in this area is to avoid unnecessary delays after complaints are sent to the ministry of public administration.
The fourth short-term strategy was introduction of performance-based evaluation system alongside incentives-cum-allowances. But sadly, the performance-based evaluation system has not yet been finalised even after a lapse of seven years. The policies for public administration and integrity awards were formulated in 2015 and 2017 respectively and the new National Pay Commission Award was approved in 2015. The public administration and integrity awards are being given now annually, although procedural weaknesses and biases allegedly exist in the nomination process. The salaries and allowances have been almost doubled though the pay commission award. But benefits like car loans for deputy secretaries (mostly belonging to administration cadre) have not been uniform for all cadres. Besides, there is no indication that integrity has increased or corruption has diminished due to these measures and incentives.
The fifth short-term strategy was filling up vacant posts. But government measures for recruitment against available posts have been quite inadequate, as around 23 per cent of the posts currently remain vacant. Around 28 per cent of Assistant Secretaries/Senior Assistant Secretaries and equivalent posts are now empty. But there are over 100 per cent officials in the posts of deputy secretaries, joint secretaries and additional secretaries, which have given rise to an inverted pyramid structure instead of the customary pyramid-shaped one. Besides, the tendency to appoint pro-ruling party personnel on contractual basis has exacerbated in recent years. The challenges in this area include excessive delays in recruitment; investigations by numerous intelligence agencies on candidates despite absence of such provisions in law; wholesale appointment of administrative officials in technical posts; and creation of supernumerary posts for administration cadre only, which is considered discriminatory by other cadres.
The long-term integrity strategies included framing of an appropriate public employment act, career planning, relating performances in training to promotions, empowering the training institutions, promotions based solely on seniority, performance, knowledge and skill, and expansion of e-governance in public services. Progresses in these areas have also not been up to satisfaction.
The authorities should recognise the weaknesses in the implementation of the 2012 National Integrity Strategy and take urgent remedial measures.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.