Transform Bhutan website discusses Accountability in the Civil Services

A website called Transform Bhutan with the web address transform.bt has been set up by the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Royal Audit Authority, the Royal Civil Service Commission and the Transformation Office.

The site or platform features discussion papers on issues confronting Bhutan’s public service to spark debate and thinking on how agencies can address these issues. 

The website is linked to the Civil Service Reforms and is a time bound one that will discuss thematic issues around it.

The topic of the discussion paper put up in December 2021 is called ‘What does accountability in the Civil Services around the world look like?’

Accountability in the Public Sector

The paper says that accountability in the public sector is not just about public service providers and citizens as beneficiaries, but in fact, in many countries, demand for greater accountability has led to a seismic shift away from “government knows best” to a more citizen-centric, citizen engagement approach.

​It says accountability enhances efficiency and productivity and fosters public trust. It is an important aspect of good governance. Accountability has tangible benefits for public servants themselves by empowering and incentivizing them to drive results, promoting ownership and providing greater clarity of roles and responsibilities.

The paper points out that an effective accountability framework must be backed by a clear and measurable set of goals, expectations and standards for enforcement, along with incentives and penalties that are actually implemented.

Accountability deficits in agencies are because of lack of performance evidence, inactive interaction between agents and principal, and rewards or punishment not aligned to performance negatively influence agency performance.

The paper presents accountability in three dimensions with a foreign and local case study each.

Performance accountability

Performance accountability involves the setting of agreed targets, putting in place monitoring and reporting systems, regular reviews for improvements and rewards and penalties. Examples include performance-based incentives in Singapore and Government Performance Management System through Annual Performance Agreements (APAs) in Bhutan. 

In Estonia 3 million Euros worth of vaccines held in the Estonian Health Board’s cold storage was damaged in late June 2021 because of the rise in temperature of the cold storage rooms. Director General of the Health Board, Mr. Ullar Lanno, submitted his resignation in September 2021 even though deficits in the construction were already existent when Mr. Lanno took office in October 2020.

The Health Minister stated that the current management’s fault was failing to identify the issues and taking corrective and preventive actions. Mr. Lanno will not receive his severance pay.

In the case of Bhutan, the Thimphu Thromde the construction of two multilevel car parks (MLCPs) in Thimphu, under Public-Private Partnership model was given as an example attracting a lot of controversy and RAA findings. The project is under the ACC scanner.

The MLCP did not feature in Thimphu Thromde’s APAs and thhromde was rated “very good” with APA ratings above 90% between 2016 and 2018. 

Compliance accountability 

Compliance accountability is ensured through the development of codes of conduct and ethical standards, service standards, operational rules and disciplinary regulations and the conduct of regular compliance audits. 

​In Singapore an investigation was carried out by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) of Singapore on Mr. Norezwan Bin Em, who was at that time, a Senior Investigation Officer in the Employment Inspectorate of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).

Norezwan had issued a Special Pass to a female Chinese national who was assisting MOM with an investigation. With the special pass, she was allowed to stay in Singapore legally. The CPIB’s investigation, which started in November 2012 revealed that Norezwan had continued to contact her in his personal capacity and had obtained sexual favours from her on three occasions as an inducement for the extension of her stay.

On 19 September 2013, Norezwan Bin Em was convicted for corruptly obtaining gratification in the form of sexual favours. He was sentenced to 8 months’ jail for corruption in October 2013, within a span of 11 months after the information was received. 

In the case of Bhutan, the case of the Chenda Tobgay was the case study whereby the case first came to light in 2011 due to unpaid hospital bills for Bhutanese patients despite money being released. The hospitals threatened the Embassy of Bhutan in Bangkok with legal action. The government had to pay Nu.18 million to avoid legal action.

The head of chancery not only caused huge financial losses to the government but also tainted the country’s image.

The investigation took four years and was forwarded to the Office of the Attorney General in March 2015.

In April 2021, ten years after the case first surfaced, Chenda Tobgay was sentenced by the Supreme Court to nine years in prison.

Operational accountability

 While operational accountability could be viewed as a subset of compliance accountability, it refers specifically to the implementation of good and innovative practices that promote the optimization and sustainable use of resources to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. 

New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General consults closely with its auditees as part of its quality control objective and measures its impact by the number of recommendations accepted.

Each of the auditees reviews the auditor’s recommendations, clause by clause based on significance, for incorporation into their plan for improvement.

For instance, based on resource implications, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry reviewed and adopted 73% of the recommendations related to managing biosecurity risks associated with high-risk sea containers. Similarly, the Department of Conservation reviewed and adopted 5 out of 9 recommendations related to planning for and managing publicly owned land.

This practice was embedded into New Zealand’s performance auditing in response to public demand for better performance and greater accountability. It is expected to address issues concerning inefficiencies in the public sector. 

In Bhutan as per the 2018 Annual Audit Report, the total unresolved irregularities increased from Nu.405 million in 2017 to Nu.604 million in 2018. The highest amount was reported with the MOAF at Nu.80 million, followed by the MOIC with Nu.53 million and the MoWHS with Nu.52 million.

The APA assessment report for FY 2018-19 for the MOAF, MOIC, and MOWHS were 97.4%, 98.8%, and 99.1%, respectively. 

The highest amount was on account of mismanagement such as under-utilization of structures of the Tibetan Mastiff Conservation project at Gasa and the non operational Chupathang lift irrigation scheme in Samtse, which had remained defunct for two planting seasons because of breakdown of the pumping system.

The highest irregularities in the MoAF were attributed to payment made without completion of various works or without supporting documents, and wasteful expenditure in the construction of market sheds.

Shortfalls, lapses, and deficiencies on payment exceeding the actual work done due to non-recovery of advances from the running account bills and grant of inadmissible advances, outstanding advances, and payment made without adequate supporting documents were also identified.

Conclusion

The paper concluded that accountability is important for public sector performance. It ensures responsibility, competency, and transparency in decision-making and service delivery processes.

An effective accountability framework requires the swift enforcement of consequences, without fear or favour.

It said the case studies provide useful insights and lessons for Bhutan in enforcing accountability. For example, leadership in Estonia had to take responsibility for the failure to identify and put in place corrective actions. While the work was carried out under the tenure of the predecessor, the successor came under public pressure and took responsibility for his failure to take corrective measures during his one year in office. 

In the Singapore case study, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau of Singapore had the perpetrator convicted of corruption within 11 months.

New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General put in place a system to incentivise the implementation of audit recommendations through strong collaboration with the auditees themselves. In addition, measuring their own impact by the number of recommendations accepted also created the right incentives for the auditors to work closely with the auditees. 

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