An effective government is a streamlined one

March 11, 2020 | 10:59 pm PT
There is no need to have a large government when we can use technology to make the system less cumbersome and more transparent.
Le Dang Doanh

Le Dang Doanh

In the past, when it came to food safety issues, whatever was grown on land was the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, whatever was farmed in water was the responsibility of the Ministry of Aquaculture and whatever was sold in the market was the responsibility of the Ministry of Trade.

And when each ministry is held accountable for just one area, everyone is willing to share the praise if there's an achievement, but none would take responsibility when there's a problem.

The most recent reorganization of the government was in 2007. The government eliminated four ministries and ministerial-level agencies by combining several ministries together. I was all for the creation of a Ministry of Industry and Trade, which was done by merging the industry and trade ministries.

Prior to their merger, the two ministries used to have conflicting policies since one worked on opening up the Vietnamese economy to the world while the other protected local businesses. But as the domestic and global markets become more connected than ever, I believed there should be a connection between producing and trading. The producers also need to be responsible for consumption.

I was also in total agreement with the merger of the aquaculture and agriculture ministries to create the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Aquaculture and agriculture both use natural resources on land and in water and involve many tasks that are related to one another, and so unifying them would facilitate the process of drafting effective policies for the development of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, I thought back then.

Then there was the establishment of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism by merging several ministerial agencies along with a part of the then Ministry of Culture and Information.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment was assigned an additional task of keeping an eye on Vietnam’s waters and islands, which was also proof that Vietnam had long-term plans for its maritime economy.

But those changes notwithstanding, what the public has seen is officials going on business trip after business trip and attending meeting after meeting without knowing exactly what they have achieved or even done.

Sometimes those trips and meetings took place only because one government arm created tasks for another, one ministry invited that ministry over, or authorities of some localities wanted to meet for some exchange programs, with citizens not benefiting from any of this.

Sometimes the governance achievement only means making adjustments to its own system.

I recently heard that the Institute for State Organizational Sciences has proposed streamlining the government apparatus by combining four ministries into two and having only four instead of five deputy PMs.

The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Planning and Investment should be merged as should the Transport and Construction ministries.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has been calling for combining many departments in cities and provinces.

I wholeheartedly welcome these proposals.

Citizens register for administrative procedures at the office of District 12 Peoples Committee in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Citizens register for administrative procedures at the office of District 12 People's Committee in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Firstly, streamlining the entire machinery will help reduce the number of positions, ministries, departments, sectors that are not actually necessary, bring out the best in each government agency and, thus, make the entire system better.

The Ministry of Planning and Investment now only takes care of public projects and makes plans for government investments, which means it makes perfect sense to merge it with the Ministry of Finance. For the same reason, many ministries and ministerial agencies should review their tasks to see what overlap and what could be merged.

The idea of having four deputy PMs is also reasonable. One of them should oversee all ministers and ensure they fulfill their duties and responsibilities.

We now have five deputy PMs but there are so many issues, minor and major, that need to be decided by the PM.

The chairman of the Government Office, Mai Tien Dung, said earlier this year that the PM sometimes calls him at 1 a.m. to discuss government work.

If the PM has to make the final decision on everything, work will stall and the public and businesses will be affected.

Secondly, streamlining the government apparatus will result in lessening expenditure.

The money needed to run government agencies sometimes accounts for 70 percent of the government budget, debt servicing for 25 percent, and there is only a small amount of less than 10 percent left for investment in development.

For spending on development, Vietnam has had to issue government bonds and borrow.

If the number of state workers and state agencies continues to increase without any plans for reform, there is no way we can restructure spending or reduce administrative expenses.

Deputy PM Vuong Dinh Hue (now Hanoi's Party Secretary) said recently that different actions need to be taken at the same time to reform the wage policy for government workers.

Of them, the two most important should be reorganizing the entire system and streamlining it to reduce the number of people receiving salaries from the government.

The government has targeted cuts of at least 10 percent to its payroll by next year to ease the pressure on the budget. In 2018 the State Audit Office had called for greater oversight of human resources after finding 57,175 government workers were surplus to requirements.

The Ministry of Public Security underwent a major restructuring the same year, with many departments scrapped or merged, and the move has not had any negative impacts on its efficiency so far.

All its six general departments were scrapped. The merger of divisions with similar functions has reduced its intermediate-level departments by 60 to just over 50, while nearly 300 sub-divisions were scrapped.

In 20 provinces and cities, the fire and police departments have been merged. The restructuring resulted in more than 1,500 subdivisions at police departments being eliminated.

We can learn from other nations such as Britain, France and the U.S. They don't even have deputy PMs but yet their governments function. Of course we have to look at each situation carefully and scientifically to see which model is suitable for Vietnam.

Government models in developed countries are very streamlined and well organized, and there should be no excuse for us to not follow them. Many countries with bigger populations and economies than Vietnam have fewer ministries and ministerial-level agencies than it: Russia has 21, France has 18, Singapore has 16, the U.S. has 15, and Germany has 14. Vietnam has 22 ministries and ministerial agencies, plus eight other government agencies.

Last but not least, by switching to e-governance, digitalizing the economy and taking advantage of  information-technology development will not only help reduce the number of workers but also increase the volume of work done.

Information technology will also help prevent corruption and improve transparency, which would benefit the people.

PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc called for measures to adopt e-governance last year.

All ministries, ministerial agencies and municipalities have established steering committees for setting up an e-government.

Though there are still shortcomings in the current e-government model which precludes it from attaining optimal efficiency, most of the public are able to access the portals of government agencies through their smart phones.

Achieving optimal efficiency would allow people to complain, blow the whistle and report corruption and other negative occurrences and the government to immediately respond.

Streamlining the government means innovative thinking, simultaneous implementation of political, economic and institutional reforms, promoting transparency, and combating corruption, squander, bureaucracy, and interest groups.

It would be an opportunity to select human resources, make good use of talent and prevent nepotism and abuse of power by officials to bring unqualified and unworthy people into the system.

But making the streamlining process work does not need several state agencies to be merged into one: what is needed is making adjustments to their functions and responsibilities to create a new machine that operates on a new principle.

For this stage, the requirement would be reforming the institutions of the market economy and state, boosting democracy, ensuring transparency, clarifying the accountability of officials to public money, public investment, as well as their responsibilities to citizens and businesses, and reducing the time and money the public and businesses spend on administrative procedures.

What people care about is not what the government has added or removed from its apparatus but what it will do to solve their everyday troubles. 

*Economist Le Dang Doanh is a former specialist at the Government Office and economic adviser to many senior government officials. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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