The directive by Prime Minister Hun Sen to district governors to refrain from following him around to hear his speeches and instead focus on their constituents is long overdue and similar to the reduction on the number of public holidays, could not come any sooner.
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For long, governors together with district, commune and village chiefs, along with the heart of the government – the critical sub national leaders, have been following the prime minister, ministers or other officials around, giving scant attention to more pressing work.
These Little Napoleons have often, painstakingly at that, managed to scuttle the government’s reform efforts in ensuring better deliverables, minimising if not eradicate corruption, and assimilating former opposition party members. More importantly, it has been an impediment to doing business in the country as a whole and not just at the subnational level.
Mr Hun Sen has now shown political will and personal determination to enforce reforms across the board that could lead to a government which is more performance centric rather than one which is catering solely for the party’s appeal.
As things stand, the government bureaucracy is already bloated at almost every level and all of them are always “busy” at meetings, busy attending to party work, busy attending the Prime Minister’s events (not anymore), and so on.
A bloated government means underworked bureaucrats, both at the federal level and subnational level. To be fair, Cambodia is not alone when it comes to having a bloated bureaucracy as many other countries, in ASEAN and elsewhere have the same issues related to this conundrum.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a report published some 23 years ago, said that cynicism about the federal bureaucracy is widespread and that the general public views federal employees as aloof, uncaring bureaucrats who are unresponsive to their requests.
Throughout the country, there is a prevailing sense that the government is synonymous with inefficiency and waste, and that the federal bureaucracy is essentially out of control, what with many layers of higher-ups to report to.
This in some cases has become endemic to an extent that many a time, nothing gets done as the subnational leaders are too busy attending meetings or functions to attend to what they are really paid to do: get the job done and attend to the people’s needs.
Attending to the people’s needs. Now this is one phrase which subnational leaders must get used to henceforth as it is unlikely that the prime minister will tolerate insolence and insubordination.
Why now? First, the radical move to eliminate bottleneck in trade and industry. Then, the reduction in public holidays. The sustained massive crackdown on drugs, instructions to security officials not to use deadly force to defuse public rallies, and now this?
Could this be a start of the government’s long-awaited sustained, coherent and cohesive reform drive? Investors and businessmen would certainly hope so as these measures, if sustained and widened in almost every aspect, would enable the country to look at better trade, commerce, industry and investments.
One must realise and understand that that bureaucracy in Cambodia is here to stay, be it at the subnational level or even at the federal level. These makes other efforts at reforms a moot point as a bloated bureaucracy means a bloated payroll and an equally inefficient governance.
General Department of Taxation director-general Kong Vibol said in January that his department has achieved an average growth in revenue of 20 percent in the last five years, moving from just over $1 billion in 2014 to 1.9 billion in 2017.
However, this dramatic increase in money available to this government must not lead to wastage and leakage incurred by an inefficient workforce, rather it should be spent on the people and not on wasteful excesses such as travels to the premier’s events, accommodations or even unnecessary overseas travel to attend non-consequential conferences and seminars which are nothing more than mere junkets.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that plans by the government to restrain current spending and raise revenues are encouraging and that the government must take advantage of the current strong economic environment to intensify policies and structural reforms to enhance the economy’s resilience, and safeguard fiscal and financial stability.
Governance vulnerabilities and increased commitment to inclusive growth is also needed, it said, while public spending should be re-orientated towards priority infrastructure investment, and health and education spending to support growth and sustainable development and most certainly, not on a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.