Certain provisions of the Royal Civil Service Commission’s (RCSC) new rules for civil servants called Rules for Administrative Disciplinary Actions (RADA) that limit the ability of civil servants to share information or express themselves has set the cat among the pigeons not only among civil servants, but also media professionals.
While most of the provisions of RADA are progressive in fighting corruption, waste, inefficiency, and bringing about better accountability, the information part of the regulations is drawing the most fire and are perhaps also the most misunderstood.
This reporter sat down with a RCSC official who was part of the research and drafting team of the RADA rules to really understand the true meaning of the rules and why they are there.
The section under most fire is under the list of ‘Corrupt Practices Offences’ where it says civil servants cannot ‘Disclose critical information to an inappropriate person or audience/platform/forum.’
This is classified as a major offense with demotion for the first offence followed by compulsory retirement the second time.
The lack of the definition of the words ‘critical information’ is causing the confusion here.
Here, the RCSC official said, the words ‘critical information’ means any information that is critical for that agency and also confidential and one whose sharing would have major implications.
He said in the context of the RCSC as an agency the critical information would be the personnel files and details of civil servants, but at the same time if the RCSC takes action against a civil servant then that information is not critical but public.
In the context of a ministry he said the critical information could be privileged information like an ongoing tender document details that could influence a tender, or sharing in advance the questions that would be asked in a job interview which would also impact the interview outcome.
Giving another example, he said in the case of the JDWNRH this would have to do with the private medical records of patients.
The official said that the section does not stop civil servants from talking to the media about the public service they provide, plan activities, budget activities and their programs as long as factual information is given.
He said civil servants should not misunderstand this section and push away journalists or stop talking about the services and programs they provide.
Another section that restricts sharing of information comes under ‘National Security’ and prohibits civil servants from, ‘Unauthorized disclosure or exposure of classified/administratively controlled information.’
It is a major offence and the action is court prosecution with the administrative sanction to depend on the court verdict.
Here the RCSC official said that the information alluded to here is one that is classified and would have a bearing on national security, harmony, stability and means highly sensitive information.
He said that both the above sections and almost all RADA sections are already in Bhutan Civil Service Rules (BCSR) Chapter Three which is ‘Civil Service Values and Conduct’ which forbids certain actions or behavior.
He said the difference with RADA is that the penalties are no longer left to the discretion of the Human Resource Committee (for 04 to P1) and RCSC for (Ex3 to Ex1) but RADA clearly lays out the penalties. He said in the past there have been instances of major offences getting only light reprimands or penalties in the past.
He again stressed that the above section also does not mean that civil servants should not talk to journalists.
He said the RCSC gives importance to information sharing which is why the agency encourages all agencies to have media focal persons. Even then he said there is nothing in the BCSR or RADA that prohibits any civil servant at any level from sharing public and accurate information to journalists.
RADA under Corrupt Practices forbids civil servants to ‘Communicate/transmit/post hate messages or any content with the intent to defame a person or government agencies.’ The offense is a minor one with withholding of one month’s basic pay for the first time, demotion the second time and compulsory retirement the third time.
The RCSC official said this is in a private setting and not broadcast publicly.
RADA also prohibits them to ‘Post hate messages or any content with the intent defame a person or Government Agencies in a public forum (including online forums.)’
The latter offense is a major one with demotion the first time and compulsory retirement the second time.
This is in the context of posting such messages publicly on forums like facebook.
Here the RCSC official said that the above sections are drawn from the BCSR and is in line with the norm in many countries where civil servants cannot openly criticize their agencies.
When asked for specifics with the reporter throwing up scenarios the official said that a civil servant can write on facebook about potholes on roads, a road block, shortage of gas cylinders and other problems, but they cannot name and blame the specific government agencies and officials as that would tantamount to criticizing the government.
Again in response to a scenario question he said a civil servant cannot go on the official page of the Prime Minister and criticize the PM when he announces a government project or plan.
When asked if the above two provisions did not clash with the Constitution Article 7 section 2 that grants the ‘right to freedom of speech, opinion and expression,’ the official said the same right comes with restrictions in the Constitution, and a senior lawyer of the OAG had gone through RADA to ensure it does not clash with the Constitution or other laws.
Under, ‘National Security,’ there are two provisions on expressing views. The first forbids civil servants to ‘Initiate, support or participate in any form of demonstration or similar other activities including online protest against the government,’ and other one says civil servants cannot, ‘Express views or involve in activity that would tarnish the image of the country.’
Both are major offences with the former resulting in legal prosecution and the latter resulting in compulsory retirement.
Here the RCSC official said both are drawn from the BCSR and are linked to national security which means saying something that is not acceptable for the nation.
Here he said it is more serious than just criticizing a government agency on mundane issues but is linked to ‘sensitive issues,’ for the country.
However, apart from the controversy above the RADA has come up with rules and offences to fight corruption.
The RCSC official said that certain sections in RADA were put in looking at past Royal Audit Authority Reports and the repeated findings and issues in them. While they are broadly covered by the BCSR they have been specified in RADA along with the penalties.
One is false recording of receipts of goods and service or Acceptance of inferior goods and services.
Another is acceptance of wrong and defective goods or service and works
A third one is deliberate manipulation of specification,Collusive bidding, Collusive price fixing. These three are all major offences with demotion the first time followed by compulsory retirement the second time.
The fourth one is repeated or intentional double bookings, irregular payment, excess payments or double payment and unauthorized payments.
The fifth one is malpractice and abuses like fictitious expenditure, payment without execution of work or without receiving goods, payments of inflated amount etc.
In the fourth and fifth cases it is a major offense that will result in court prosecution.
A sixth one is execution of substandard works which is also a major offense which will result in withholding two months pay the first time, demotion the second time and compulsory retirement the third time.
Also put under RADA is the popular practice of making fictitious claims or incurring expense such as travel and subsistence payments, unjustified either by themselves or by staff reporting to them.
Also included is the gross misuse of government properties.
They are both major offenses which will incur demotion the first time followed by compulsory retirement the second time.
In all of the above cases supervisory accountability will also be placed on the supervisor which is first a reprimand, followed by withholding two months’ basic pay and then a demotion the third time.
There are also others listed like soliciting or accepting gratuity or gift to influence the performance of duties, private trade, gross misuse of office time for personal purposes, influencing staff for personal gain, using official information for personal gain, supporting or concealing information related to corrupt practices, failure to declare conflict of interest and embezzlement which are mainly major offenses.
RADA also lists behavioral issues which are again drawn mainly from the BCSR’s code of conduct chapter with the difference now being set penalties.
These issues are unauthorized absence and frequent lateness, stealing or vandalizing office property, physical assault, habitual drunkenness, gross uneconomical usage of properties, intentionally misleading by giving false or omitting information, unjustified hiring of properties, and under utilization of equipment.
Others are gross neglect of duty, passing lewd remarks, discriminating in rendering public service, inefficiency and incompetence in performance of official duties and refusal to perform official duty. These are a mix of major and minor offenses.
The old rules about not being political candidates while in service, not expressing any opinion on politics or political parties and performing or neglecting duty based on a political view are there too.