In the last two weeks, two of my old friends – civil servants both – came to meet me in my office, at different times. I hadn’t met them in years. With both of them, I ended up talking about our professions. One of them brought more feedback on the Bhutanese media while the other updated me on the state of the civil service.
The government officials, my friend told me, fear the Bhutanese media for being misquoted. They don’t want their division, department, ministry or sector to be reflected in a negative light. They also fear the media when they are caught unprepared because that’s when they are most vulnerable and are most likely to tell the truth. He told me that younger and more educated civil servants are more open towards the media and they discuss the issues the media carry more frequently. The ‘bosses’, he said, are more likely to consider the media sort of a ‘problem creator’. It’s a fresh perspective on the media. It comes from a remote dzongkhag where my friend works. I think his observation is generally true.
The other friend brought me news about the civil service. After a few years in the civil service, he is more confident about himself but less vocal about the government system. He said now he was more mature and knew what to talk about and what not to, particularly with the bosses. He said that if one wanted to rise in the system, one should respect the well-established hierarchy and with it opinions and ways of doing things according to the hierarchy. Which, he explained to me, meant that the dzongda’s opinion or ways of doing things, for example, always mattered more than a planning officer’s however more professional or innovative the latter’s is.
That’s what he meant by maturity. He said that the ‘lot of enthusiasm to do things differently’ when he first joined the civil service is gone. “Initially I never knew that I was exposing myself to a lot of risks,” he told me with a sense of relief. “Now I know how to do things correctly.” That’s how things are done ‘correctly’.
We hear this view from many young civil servants. Their frustration is obvious. They are not able to find enough space to express themselves in speech and in action. The best way to succeed in the civil service, they think, is not to become a black sheep with newer, brighter ideas. That’s how some of the highly motivated people choose to become like others. That’s how we might not be taking the best advantage of talents, education and experience the civil service so richly holds.
If young civil servants can’t express themselves professionally, from one generation to another, the way our civil servants do things will not change. And this will not help the improvement of public service delivery.