Myanmar's new Civil Service Reform Strategic Action Plan is at one and the same time everything that we might have envisioned, and nothing that we could have expected, when we first started working in Myanmar in 2013 and 2014.
The Civil Service Reform Plan aims to make the civil service more ethical, more diverse, and better equipped to address the complex challenges confronting Myanmar. Its development was led by the Union Civil Service Board- in Myanmar, the body that performs many, but not all, civil service management functions at national level- with UNDP support.
The ambitious content, the year-long nationwide consultations that preceded it, and the public support from the highest levels across state institutions that the Plan received are commendable for any government, not least one emerging from decades of authoritarian rule. Its timeliness and potential importance is evident in the continuing media coverage it is receiving.
The Plan’s frankness about sensitive issues like corruption would have been difficult to contemplate just a few years ago. H.E. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, launched the Plan, saying “tackling corruption will contribute to a wider objective of the Strategic Action Plan: the development of greater trust between civil servants and the communities that they serve.” It includes concrete measures which go beyond rhetoric to attempt to address the issue.
This is a stark contrast to Chris’s second day on the job in 2014, at a good governance forum also hosted by the Union Civil Service Board. Then, civil servants found it difficult to openly discuss corruption and its causes and manifestations in Myanmar, not least develop strategies to address it.
Over 1,200 civil servants and members of the public contributed over the past year to developing the Plan. The State Counsellor, Vice President, both Speakers of Parliament, 15 Union Ministers, and the Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Commissions Chairs attended the launch. Six Chief Ministers and many Members of State and Region Parliaments noted the Plan’s potential to solve problems they face at subnational level.
This kind of cross-institution collaboration is especially meaningful in a government notorious for acting in silos and observing strict hierarchy. In 2014 UNDP, the EU and the General Administration Department hosted a ‘Bagan retreat’, with six other institutions to discuss administrative and civil service reforms: it was the first time that these central institutions had gathered together to talk about reform. We have come a long way from that first room of 30 Directors.
Most surprisingly, the Union Civil Service Board put a draft of the Plan on Facebook. People shared it 365 times, and liked it 482 times. It reached more than 15,000 people, some of whom gave detailed comments and ideas for changes. This kind of transparency, collaboration and openness to public critique was simply unheard of when we first arrived in Myanmar.
The launch of the plan is just the beginning. Reforms, especially complex reforms involving many government institutions, are difficult and there will be bumps in the road ahead: interests will be challenged, energy for collaboration may diminish, and long term improvements may only emerge after short term setbacks. Some civil service challenges are rooted in the Constitution and the current governance system in place, and these reforms are deeply political.
However, there are solid foundations which can help ensure success. The high level political support for transformational change is a good sign, as are the collaborative but accountable steering arrangements put in place. The energy and commitment of civil servants to see the change through was also tangible- as the Chairman of the Union Civil Service Board noted, “we don’t need to change the Constitution to change how we talk to and work with our colleagues and with the public.”
We are proud to have been part of the UNDP team supporting this process.