Vietnam’s outdated civil service system ripe for change

By Nguyen Khac Giang   July 22, 2018 | 07:00 pm PT
Government workers remain in their jobs until retirement, and citizens pay taxes to provide for them all those years.
Nguyen Khac Giang, a researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research.

Nguyen Khac Giang, a researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research.

What can a group of 19 Vietnamese do? The simple answer: a lot.

A bunch of sailors stayed strong together for six hours stranded at sea after their boats were hit by an “unidentified” cargo ship in April, a group of programmers are behind a start-up that is climbing to the top in Asia, a bunch of seniors are managing to preserve a craft village. All of them had 19 members.

If you have enough free time, there’s a long list of many different things a group of 19 Vietnamese can accomplish. But yet there is a task, a very minor one, that they cannot do: oversee an official.

There is one official for every 19 Vietnamese. Data from the General Statistics Office showed that at the end of last year there were more than 5.2 million people working in the public sector. And the current population of Vietnam is almost 96 million.

And that is the reason why you should sympathize with 18 people you meet on the streets because you and they have at least one thing in common: a part of your income is used to pay two officials in this country.

And for that reason, you and I have every right to question what those officials have done.

There is no public data or information system to tell people what officials are doing in Vietnam. And there is no direct monitoring mechanism in the country that allows citizens to keep track of the efficiency of officials.

You and I and 17 others contribute to feeding an official, but we can only oversee what they do through the news.

But thanks to the news, I learned that two very contrasting stories are breaking in Da Nang, a major city on the central coast.

By the end of May 40 civil servants recruited under Da Nang’s high-quality human resource development program had quit. Many of them, as contracted, had to reimburse the city for the so-called cost of training them, which ran into tens of thousands of dollars.

But one month later Da Nang announced a policy encouraging officials to resign before they reach retirement age with a golden parachute of up to VND200 million ($8,660), depending on their position.

As a citizen, I feel a bit frightened. Why, in the same system, are young people willing to give up their jobs while elders are rewarded to quit?

And this is not a headache only for Da Nang but also Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Last year Vietnam’s two biggest cities made the same suggestion to older government workers, asking them to jump with a golden parachute.

Residents wait to perform administrative procedures in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Residents wait to perform administrative procedures in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

So what does all of this say?

Firstly, if we look at the public sector as a single company, for sure the company faces a big problem. An effective system should refresh itself constantly to eliminate obsolete elements and replace them with new ones that are more efficient and dynamic. Any business that bucks this trend will become slack and lose out.

Secondly, the number of inefficient state officials remains too high. Vietnam is among the countries with the highest number of civil servants in Southeast Asia. And as I said above, 19 Vietnamese citizens are paying taxes to provide for each official.

This is a very heavy burden on Vietnam and is reflected in the high expenses required to keep the state machinery running: more than 71 percent of the budget as of last May. Vietnam collected VND1,300 trillion ($57 billion) in taxes and fees last year, up 18.8 percent from 2016.

Thirdly, the civil service lacks an intelligent and appropriate structure to reduce staff when needed. The system of employing staff and letting them work until retirement is too old and outdated and at the same time recognizes workers for the length of their service rather than capabilities.

The “tectonic government” has completed half its journey, but the “startup nation” envisaged by authorities should be established with talented and devoted civil servants. The success of IT startups, whether in Silicon Valley or Bengaluru, is owed to human resources who work with passion and are so absorbed in their tasks that they even forget to eat and sleep, not to those who go to work every day but wait for their retirement pension.

A state system that exists to serve citizens is just like a company that serves its customers and should thus be manned by passionate staff.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam recently approved reforms which look at the capabilities and positions of officials and their contributions to the efficiency of the public sector to set their salary scales.

But to achieve a truly effective dismissal mechanism may need more solutions than just a salary reform scheme.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is a researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research. The opinions expressed are his own.

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