Peter Batchelor: Address at Knowledge Forum on Bolstering Motivation in the Civil Service through Improved Integrity, Meritocracy and Equal Opportunities

Dec 16, 2016

Excellency Dr. Win Thein, Chairman of the Union Civil Service Board, Honorable Members of Parliament, Excellencies States and Regions Ministers, Senior Officials, civil society representatives, colleagues from the international community, development partners and the United Nations, distinguished guests, Mingalabar.

I have the privilege to be making my second speech on the subject of the civil service in as many days. I see some familiar faces with us this morning. For those of you who attended the extremely valuable third round consultative workshop on the civil service reform Strategic Action Plan yesterday: I hope that I will still manage to provide some new insights.

We are gathered here today to launch two important pieces of research. The first is about the civil service in Myanmar, and the perceptions and experience of over two thousand civil servants surveyed by UNDP and the UCSB in 2015. The second, also published by UNDP, is about civil service reform further afield- in New Zealand. I hope that both these pieces of research can make a positive contribution to civil service reform in Myanmar and stimulate vibrant discussions here today.

This morning I would like to offer some reflections of my own about civil service transformation, drawn from my own personal experience, in my own country- South Africa.

I am sure all of you have heard of Nelson Mandela, a great person in the history of South Africa, and the world. As a former political prisoner who went on to become the leader of his country- a country divided by racial oppression and inequality- Nelson Mandela is globally admired as a force for national reconciliation, helping to bring peace and prosperity to South Africa, after decades of civil war and racial conflict.

Many years ago, before I joined the UN, I had the great honour to serve as an advisor to President Mandela, witnessing first-hand the extent and ambition of the changes he initiated, and the many challenges faced by the South African government as it sought to implement them.

I count myself lucky to have been part of two historic democratic transitions in my life, in two beautiful countries- Myanmar and South Africa. Like Myanmar, South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994 was founded on the hope for change from the past, and the embodiment of a new set of democratic principles, including equality, diversity and respect for human rights. To translate these principles into reality required a coordinated effort on an unprecedented scale.

South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994 started with a new Constitution which enshrined respect for human rights. You may not know it, but in South Africa, we have eleven official languages- reflecting all the races, ethnicities and communities in South Africa. After 1994 South Africa transformed itself from a racially divided state, under apartheid, whose main purpose was to maintain social, cultural, political and economic divisions amongst South Africa’s many and diverse people, and to promote the interests of white people at the expense of others, to one which embraces diversity and inclusion. We now proudly call ourselves the Rainbow nation. Despite the many challenges my country continues to face, this remains a remarkable achievement, and one which our new Constitution and Mandela’s government set in motion.

Under the apartheid government, many people, lost faith and trust in the authoritarian white-dominated government.

The new Government of National Unity which was formed in 1994 recognised this and, like Myanmar, strove to become more democratic and ‘people centred.’ It introduced changes to the very structures of the state, with a new form of federal governance (4 old provinces became 9 new provinces), as well as reforms to all aspects of the civil service, to bring the administration closer to the people. These reforms included how the civil service was managed, how people were selected, recruited and promoted, to the fundamental ethos of public service.

It was noted at the time of our transition to democracy, that ‘a fundamental challenge for the new civil service is that it must now be governed by the ethos of democratic governance as cited in the Constitution. The culture of authoritarianism, intolerance, impatience or outright arrogance, reminiscent of the past, must change if the civil service is to shed the image of an outdated, undemocratic and racist government.’ The changes introduced were highly ambitious and had significant short term impact, but also had long term implications which perhaps at the time we failed to account for.

One of the reports that UNDP is launching today, the perception survey of civil servants, touches on a principle which is very close to my heart. This is the principle of equal opportunities. As a staff member of the United Nations, I am daily inspired by the UN Charter, which affirms ‘faith in fundamental human rights, and the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.’ As a South African, I also recall how important it was, in that wonderful moment of our democratic transition, to make all efforts to ensure that South Africa’s civil service could be truly representative of the people it serves, and take steps to dismantle the racial divisions which defined our country for so long. As a predominantly white, educated civil service, in a majority non-white country, the necessity for drastic changes was clear.

In discussions with many of you here yesterday on civil service reforms, I see that many steps are already being proposed to promote equality in the civil service in Myanmar. While the laws here uphold the principle of equality and non-discrimination, the report which we are launching today shows that in practice there is room for improvement to ensure women and ethnic minorities can access the most senior positions in government, and to reduce potential discrimination on gender and ethnic grounds. In South Africa, our challenges were even greater, as our systems promoted an unequal system based on racial bias (only white people, most of whom were men, could be promoted to the highest levels). This bias extended even to pay and benefits. Dismantling these barriers was a first step and an important signal to all the people of South Africa about the commitment of the government to change. As the government changed after our first democratic election, so did the face of the civil service. And so today our civil service is much more representative of the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of our country. Myanmar can do the same.

Maintaining a high standard of ethics was the first principle of public administration mentioned in the South African Constitution. Upholding this principle remains a challenge, and like many other countries, South Africa both then and now, has struggled with the scourge of corruption. In Myanmar, too, more than two thirds of the civil servants we interviewed felt that civil servants took bribes. Ethics is mentioned so prominently in the South African Constitution, because it was recognised that to trust the government, people needed to know that civil servants upheld higher standards of ethics and integrity. Integrity is essential to the people’s trust that the government will deliver the best services it can without favour; and that it has the capacity and willingness to protect them from abuse. I am delighted that Myanmar is making efforts to enhance integrity at the heart of its civil service reform measures, and I hope that the findings of the reports shared today will help inform these plans.

A last principle which, in South Africa, was intended to promote both the achievement of a more inclusive, and more ethical civil service, was meritocracy. This is the third principle which UNDP and the UCSB’s survey of civil servants in Myanmar has addressed. In Myanmar, the main difficulties with upholding meritocracy include a lack of transparent procedures and oversight, practices of nepotism and favouritism, and politically-influenced appointments. South Africa faced many of these same challenges at the time of our own democratic transition.

The aim behind all of South Africa’s civil service reforms, but especially the introduction of meritocracy, was to dismantle the racially defined apartheid state and build a democratic one in its place. By introducing the practice of meritocracy, the aim was to ensure that appointments could no longer be driven by political favours or influenced by powerful but secret white interests, but could be competed for, at all levels, by people from all backgrounds, irrespective of gender, race or ethnicity. One of the first actions taken after our democratic transition was that the most senior appointments in the central government became subject to scrutiny by the Public Service Commission, which was appointed directly by President Mandela. This ensured that the top civil servants could only be appointed on merit.
It is important to acknowledge that South Africa’s democratic transition has not been without its challenges. All these changes that I have described were extremely difficult to implement in practice and, due to the nature of the political transition, some compromises had to be made which diminished their positive impact in the long term. It is precisely by recognising that transforming the civil service is a long-term and difficult endeavour, that we can together try to anticipate and avoid some of the challenges lying ahead. Myanmar has an opportunity to learn from the lessons of South Africa and other countries, and avoid our mistakes.

A first lesson from the South African experience was that not everybody was excited, or supportive, about the changes being introduced. In my short time here in Myanmar I have heard many people make the point about the need for a mind-set change in government and in the civil service. In South Africa, many civil servants had strongly held beliefs (based on the past), that were at odds with the principles of equality, representivity and meritocracy that were enshrined in our new Constitution. They strongly resisted change. There were also others, who, even though they believed in this new vision, were personally going to lose out because of the proposed changes: for example, they would have reduced potential for advancement and promotion, due to increased competition from a new group of qualified civil servants, or reduced opportunities to influence promotions through bribery and nepotism. It is important to understand that this second group of people, the ones who believe in equality in principle, but not in practice, likely also exist in Myanmar.

A second lesson relates to the political compromises that were made in the early transition years. At the time of our democratic transition in 1994 we had many experienced white senior officials in the civil service who had been very committed to the former apartheid government; these officials remained for some years, working closely with newly appointed Ministers and a stream of newly hired technocrats from more diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds. In some cases, these three groups of civil servants worked seamlessly together. In other cases, they disagreed over who had what responsibilities: former civil servants did not trust their new Ministers, and got more and more engaged in the politicians’ sphere. Meanwhile, new politicians were eager to make their mark on the civil service and the administrative arrangements of Ministries. This set a precedent for the politicisation of the civil service (particularly at senior levels) that is the source of many of the challenges facing our civil service today. This also had a negative impact on the motivation of civil servants, both old and new.

Lastly, when we introduced a new federal system with new provincial and local governments, the ideas and, also, the policies and systems being introduced at central level didn’t automatically translate down to lower levels. This meant that as our new local governments were being developed, we missed an opportunity for a clean start, and some old practices continued. A lesson to be drawn from this is the importance of strong standards, clear communication of a new vision to all levels, and buy-in from those who are supposed to promote the new vision (particularly senior officials – old and new). Although Myanmar does not at the moment have a fully devolved civil service management at the state and region levels, it is still important that all civil servants, and especially those in the different Ministries responsible for managing and delivering services at all levels of government, understand and can be a part of the planned reforms.

This is one reason why I am delighted to see today, as yesterday, representatives from State and Region Governments here with us.

I hope I have managed to give you a balanced picture of some of the changes that South Africa underwent- and their powerful positive impact, but also their limitations. If I look back to that moment in 1994, it seems incredible that South Africa achieved all that we did. I also look back and see the many lessons we have learned along the way. As I stand here today, at this particular time in Myanmar’s history, I know that you too, will achieve a lot in your vision to create a truly equitable, representative and meritocratic civil service. UNDP is a trusted partner to Myanmar and its people, and stands ready to help you on this important journey.


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