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Testing for civil service on radar

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng yesterday called on government ministries to clean up their civil service entrance tests, which are widely perceived to be plagued by corruption, and pointed to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports drastic reform of this year’s grade 12 final exams as an example.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony for students of the University of Human Resources, Kheng said the strict clampdown on cheating in the grade 12 exams – which resulted in abysmally low passing rates – could be a boon to human resources if implemented in the civil service as well.

Despite pockets of criticism for the grade 12 testing crackdown, Kheng said, "if we did not start [somewhere], we would never experience of any kind of reform, and this is a good start".

Noting that some of the 11 students nationwide to receive an A grade on the exams came from humble families while many wealthy students failed, Kheng went on to assert that nepotism and position-buying was far from ideal.

“Thus, to make institutions work effectively, ministries will also have to follow [the Education Ministry's] move in order to have intelligent [staff],” he said.

Public Function Minister Pich Bunthin, who oversees the civil service, said that under the law, he has the right to appoint monitors to oversee other ministries’ entry exams, but even if those monitors observed improper behaviour, only the ministry involved would have the authority to take action. But ministries policing themselves would be better in the long run, he said.

“To ensure transparency, it is necessary for each ministry to strengthen itself,” he said.

Over the years, numerous government institutions have come under fire for their hiring and promotion practices.

An Asian Human Rights Commission report in 2006 linked skyrocketing police recruitment figures to politically motivated hirings. In 2009, the International Finance Corporation called reform of Cambodia’s civil service a key measure. And just last year, the Anti-Corruption Unit sought a response from the Ministry of Information over allegations that prospective civil servants were being made to pay to pass entrance exams.

The same year, the Education Ministry itself came under fire from a teachers union for restricting tests governing promotions to those already holding high-level positions.

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that while cracking down on the entry process certainly couldn’t hurt, it shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to ignore existing corruption higher in the ranks.

“It’s almost too late … but it is OK to wake up and work on it as soon as possible,” he said.

San Chey, coordinator for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said that while his organisation had no concrete research on the subject, there was anecdotal evidence that poorer candidates were disadvantaged when seeking jobs and promotions within the civil service.

The Education Ministry’s model could prove effective in civil servant exams, he added, but only if backed up by the same strict enforcement that dogged this year’s grade 12 test takers.

“Strict exams to qualify the persons … would be much appreciated,” he said.

Though Kheng’s recommendations do not carry the weight of law, Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak said yesterday that he would not be surprised if they represented the position of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as a whole.

“I think it must have come from the CPP. Maybe Hun Sen doesn’t want to say it again, [but] Hun Sen has said it before,” he said. “I think it’s a sign that the CPP is going to take some reforms.

Whether those reforms are too little, too late remains to be seen.

And while the reforms are feasible to an extent, Virak added, they wouldn’t be easy.

“The problem is that everybody is trying to hang on to their turf … so there is probably going to be very little reform unless there’s a complete changing of the guard.”

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