By Tenzing Lamsang
Every National Day address of His Majesty The King has focused on issues of national importance with both a view of current events and also a long term view of the future.
If the timely 110th National Day celebration was about strengthening our security and sovereignty through internal unity and stability, then the 111th National Day address looked at the ‘steel structure’ of Bhutan’s governance or in other words the civil service.
His Majesty started with an important acknowledgement to elected representatives and political parties in what has been a crucial election year, at a significant time in Bhutan’s history.
His Majesty’s acknowledgement of the four political parties’ main messages on narrowing the gap, self reliance, decentralization and eradicating corruption showed how all of these are important priorities that will are important to the nation.
In the same vein the Royal address pointed out how political parties all pledged to work for the the wellbeing of the people by focusing on similar areas like agriculture, water, rural infrastructure, health, education, youth employment, connectivity, good governance, hydropower, private sector, transparency and other areas.
His Majesty pointed out that the vision of the pledges of the political parties clearly reflected our aspirations as a nation.
This important message serves two main purposes. The first is that it is the context of an election year in Bhutan, which is usually a very divisive period, and so His Majesty’s collective acknowledgment of all the parties’ pledges as being important for the nation reminds us how despite different political choices or affiliations we are all essentially Bhutanese with the same national goals and priorities. It is a message of political unity.
The second purpose is that it serves as an important base to head into the main focus of the Royal address on the 111th National Day celebrations -the civil service.
It is the civil service which has to essentially implement the various developmental activities that the politicians have promised to the people, be it in the form of the 12th plan, hydro projects and other day to day services.
The first important area pointed out by His Majesty is in terms of the capacity of the civil service in absorbing the biggest ever Nu 310 bn 12th plan and numerous ongoing and upcoming hydro projects.
His Majesty’s concern’s on the increased works and the associated risks are an important reminder to civil servants to be on their toes.
This is in the context of the 12th Plan being extremely important for Bhutan as Bhutan hopes to graduate from its Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2023 and achieve economic self sufficiency by the end of the plan period.
However, things can go wrong if the 12th plan investments are not made properly or implementation is lax, and if there are again issues and delays in the hydro projects.
The civil service world over is known as the ‘permanent government,’ denoting a sense of both continuity and stability, in spite of change in political masters.
His Majesty’s address also focused on this aspect of continuity reminding the civil service of its responsibility in pursuit of national goals and objectives like enhancing Bhutan’s security and sovereignty; promoting Bhutan’s unique traditions and cultural heritage; conserving the environment; promoting peaceful and harmonious coexistence with other nations, and enhancing the reputation and national identity of Bhutan.
Even large, powerful and advanced democracies highly value stability and continuity in its democratic institutions.
At the most basic level it ensures that there are no drastic and destabilizing changes and that the government continues to function and delivers it basic services and goods no matter what the political state or situation is.
At a higher level it ensures that the while improvements and lessons of the past are incorporated, it is also open to inculcating future changes and improvements in a stable manner.
Stability and continuity is all the more important for a small national like Bhutan which is also a young democracy.
The Royal address points out how civil servants are at every level of governance right from the villages to the center and how they are both conversant with the local issues and at the same time also have the capacity and knowledge to remedy them.
The elected government of the day only has one prime minister and 10 ministers and some MPs in Parliament. There is no way that this set of leaders will be fully aware of the issues around the country. It is the duty of the civil servants to alert the government of issues in a truthful manner and also work actively to resolve issues for the welfare of the people.
His Majesty’s address called upon the civil servants to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in utilizing scarce resources and to ensure that all the resources are directed at improving the well being of the people, and in fulfilling the national vision.
This is an important message at two levels. The first is that Bhutan will have to have much higher levels of financial discipline as we graduate from the LDC status in 2023 and as we head towards economic self sufficiency. At this stage we can no longer rely on free donor money or even low concessional LDC loans.
The second aspect is that our money should ensure return for value on the quality of various developmental works, which can only happen when there is transparent process of tendering followed up by good monitoring of the works.
His Majesty’s address pointed out that there are around 54,000 public servants including 29,000 civil servants, 13,000 armed forces personnel, 7,700 in DHI companies, 3,300 in state owned enterprises and 1,500 elected representatives.
The Royal address said that one one hand this is good as it means there is one public servant for every 13 Bhutanese citizens but on the other hand with such large numbers, there is a risk that public servants can become an impediment to national development and progress.
His Majesty’s address in an important wake up call and reminder to public servants said, “The greatest danger will come from their complacency and indifference. Our public servants will fail in their duty if they do not learn from past mistakes and correct them, if they are unreceptive to feedback, if they lack accountability, if they are unresponsive to new ideas and solutions, if they have poor communication and coordination, or if organizations expand and multiply without direction or coherent vision. In this case, even our best intentions will bear no results. Instead, all we will have are missed opportunities and a debilitating waste of time and resources.”
His Majesty also pointed out that if Bhutan achieves all the national objectives, in the next 10 to 15 years, then the credit will go to Bhutan’s public servants. However, if Bhutan fails, then it will mean that the public servants have failed.
His Majesty has always paid special heed to the civil servants. This is one of the main reasons why His Majesty came up with the Royal Civil Service Award. It is also a fact that the vast majority of recipients of state awards and honors are civil servants.
However, in one National Day address after the other His Majesty has also highlighted important issues like coordination among government agencies and bigger plans and budgets and related efficiency and capacity issues.
His Majesty has also highlighted the need to fight corruption, big or small.
There can be no doubt that apart from the incumbent political parties, His Majesty places great trust in the civil service and so has high expectations from them to perform well for the nation and secure its long term future.
His Majesty’s address is a sharp contrast to political parties that made so many civil service centric pledges during the elections that many saw it as excessive and unhealthy mollycoddling to get some influential votes.
The civil service and public servants are already the largest consumers of Bhutan’s budgetary resources as will be amply clear from the much larger current budget in the 12th plan.
The timely Royal address at the start of the 12th plan puts the record straight and outlines the greater national priorities that have to be achieved in a crucial plan period and beyond. It is both a sign of trust of His Majesty in the civil service and also an important reminder of the many pitfalls.