A host of diplomats and insiders, given a cloak of anonymity in order to speak frankly, were quick to counter government’s claims that the recent shuffling of officials would boost “quality and efficiency”.
“Playing musical chairs,” they told the Post, would do nothing to address the pressing issues crippling the Kingdom’s government: the bloated administration and the often overlapping, redundant ministries and authorities.
Despite government exhortations that the reshuffle, approved by the National Assembly on Monday, would boost efficiency and performance, it’s largely been labelled a cosmetic change.
“So many ministries overlap in terms of competencies . . . For us, that was a bit disappointing, knowing it is a bit like musical chairs,” added one diplomat. “It was a missed opportunity also if one of the goals of the reshuffle was to send a reform message to the electorate.”
At its upper levels, Cambodia’s civil service, which em-ploys some 190,000 people, is indisputably swollen.
Following the reshuffle, which included several new secretaries of state, Cambodia’s executive branch now has almost 240 members: eight deputy prime ministers, 15 senior ministers, 14 ministers and 199 secretaries of state, according to Comfrel. This isn’t counting more than 200 undersecretaries of state, who are appointed by the premier and sit in the middle ground between the bureaucracy and executive.
“It’s a little big,” says Youk Bunna, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Function who is pushing public sector reform efforts. “There are some discussions that we should change the system to exclude secretaries of state as not being members of the government, but . . . if we want to do that, we have to amend the constitution.”
To a large extent, the top-heavy royal government is a legacy of the power-sharing years between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and royalist Funcinpec, said Koul Panha, executive director of government watchdog Comfrel.
“They all wanted their senior politicians to have a role in government and were afraid of the coalition splitting, so they just broadened the government,” Panha said. “When the CPP formed a government [on their own] in 2008, people expected there might be some reform . . . but they did not, they just brought in more CPP people and anyone who defected from the opposition.”
After narrowly scraping through the 2013 elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed change, telling officials to “scrub themselves clean” during a six-hour speech on planned reforms.
The government transferred several agencies run under the aegis of the Council of Ministers to their relevant ministries and combined the state secretariat of civil service, the royal school of administration and the general secretariat of public administrative reform into the Public Function Ministry.
The ministry now works to improve the bureaucracy’s human resource, but cleaning up Cambodia’s bureaucratic body remains a tall order. Twenty-eight ministries form its main limbs, and several authorities, established by various laws and decrees, have grown between.
In his book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, author and journalist Sebastian Strangio describes the patronage networks that have grown behind the “mirage” of Cambodia’s democratic structure, with money, connections and fidelity the most important currency with which to secure positions, promotions and influence.
“Since the 2013 election, Hun Sen has been forced to confront the essential contradiction of the system: the question of whether it can be reformed without undermining the CPP’s political and financial base,” Strangio said yesterday.
“In line with this, most of the changes so far have been quantitative – more handouts to the poor, more populist decrees. Beyond that, the system has mostly remained unchanged.
With this in mind, the recent reshuffle is very unlikely to trigger a fundamental rethinking of how things operate, though there could be some improvements around the edges.”
One aspect that should be relatively easy to tackle is overlapping responsibilities. Some of the edges between various ministries and their roles appear difficult to distinguish, said Panha, of Comfrel.
He pointed to the shared territory occupied by the ministries for Rural Development, Agriculture and Water Resources in terms of infrastructure and irrigation as one example.
He also questioned the need to separate the Tourism Ministry from the management of the Angkor Archaeological Park (run by the Apsara Authority, which comes under the Council of Ministers).
A second diplomat said consolidating overlapping jurisdictions would considerably help public administration.
“Turf battles between ministries and the absence of effective coordination mechanisms create a lot of unproductive friction,” they said. “The recent reshuffle has not given me the impression that remedying this has been one of the aims.”
Bunna, of the Public Function Ministry, said each ministry’s purview was set out in laws and sub-decrees that detailed roles and functions, and that overlap would be addressed by future inter-ministerial efforts.
He also argued dispersing tasks across separate ministries made it easier to track progress, but allowed that “in this approach, of course, there are some issues of coordination”, noting there were plans for a thorough study of the government’s functions.
However, an international consultant who works in the government and wished to remain anonymous, said an over-reliance on decision-making from the top, and a lack of communication mechanisms for staff to consult their superiors, often stifled efficiency.
“At most ministries, department chiefs are clueless about when their boss is going to look at something,” they said. “In the Ministry of Interior, sometimes you have department chiefs that have to send a letter to their boss to organise a meeting . . . which is just absurd. They don’t speak to their boss for three weeks, so how can there be efficiency if that sort of bureaucracy isn’t cleared up?”
Discussing the reshuffle last month, government spokesman Phay Siphan suggested that more changes were in store, and it was “just the beginning”.
However, as an election approaches, one political observer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he doubted Hun Sen would risk making structural changes that would upset loyalists.
“The time is too short and it’s not the time to make powerful people unhappy . . . The CPP cannot afford to have a serious split close to the election,” they said.
The observer suggested that someone like former Water and Meteorology secretary of state Veng Sakhon, a technocrat who now takes over Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, may have been installed to “observe and learn” the sprawling portfolio and prepare to lead a significant restructure if the CPP wins in 2018.
The observer listed the ministries of Cults and Religion, Planning, and National Assembly and Senate Relations as among those whose functions should be analysed. “The [CPP’s] priority now though is how to make the people see their lives change . . . It means a very strong public relations operation.”
In this vein, Prime Minister Hun Sen has taken to making abrupt policy announcements on Facebook and publicly calling out ministers for being “slow”.
A third capital-based diplomat said he would watch the reshuffle play out before passing judgment. “I want to see how each minister tackles these challenges, [hopefully] without an instruction from the PM on Facebook.”