Friday, April 25, 2008

Time to outsource government services

Source : Click

A HUGE crowd and long queues greeted Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he made a surprise visit to the Immigration Department headquarters in 2003, days after he assumed the premiership. The visit was to emphasise his pledge to reduce bureaucratic red tape, improve delivery of government services and strengthen the public sector’s implementation machinery.

“To ease, not to burden; to simplify, not to complicate” was the message of the Prime Minister to government officers.

Some significant improvements have been achieved in the past three years.

Before, renewing passports took two weeks. Now it takes only one hour at selected immigration offices under a pilot scheme that will be extended nationwide later.

Within Kuala Lumpur city, you don’t have to fill up numerous forms and go through endless red tape just to renovate your kitchen. City Hall has introduced the first e-application called the Building Control System which allows a house owner or contractor to fill in and submit online forms.

Suppliers and contractors who used to complain about late payments from the government can now get their money within two weeks of submitting their bills, if the documents are complete and non-disputable.

Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan has stated with pride that over 90 percent of payments by the Prime Minister’s Department were made within a week.

The Construction Industry Development Board has reduced processing time for all applications from contractors to 30 days from 60 previously. Fourteen different licences for the hotel industry have been streamlined into one.

Many administrative and systems reforms have been implemented and they provide online registrations, less paperwork and shorter processing time.

The public has acknowledged the improvements. An independent survey by a research organisation last year found about 60 percent of the respondents having experienced improved government services.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the government has only scratched the surface in trying to reform its ponderous delivery machinery. The big problem is implementation.

Recent statements by high-level people highlighted this concern.

The Prime Minister ordered Mohd Sidek to set up a task force to speed up procedures that are slowing foreign investments and giving Malaysia a bad name everywhere.

A leading corporate figure will be roped in to help drive the task.

Sarawak State Secretary Datu Wilson Baya Dandot early this week blamed red tape at the federal ministerial level for contributing to the delay in the implementation of projects and processing of payments to contractors in the state.

During a briefing for the visiting Mohd Sidek in Kuching, Baya said many processes have to be improved if the government wants to see a swift and efficient delivery system as well as effective project implementation.

“Delays in the delivery system will result in wastage and higher costs,” he added.

Congress of Union of Employees in the Public and Civil Services (Cuepacs) Sarawak chairman William Ghani singled out poor planning as among the main causes of the troubled public delivery system.

He said the Public Service Department (PSD) should plan ahead and not leave important posts vacant for long periods which could stall the system.

“We have heard of schools or departments having no immediate replacements when the principals or directors retire, and without people to make decisions, the delivery system would naturally suffer,” he said.

Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein took a tough stand by reminding his staff to ‘shape up or ship out’ in implementing the National Education Blueprint which he launched this month.

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor claimed dishonest officers in a government department were ‘messing up’ the Malaysia My Second Home programme to attract well-heeled foreigners to settle in the country.

Then came the PSD’s threat to take the unusual and drastic step of publishing in newspapers the names of government officers who go absent without leave.

Apparently, these officers have been busy with their side businesses and personal problems or simply unable to work because they are high on drugs.

Bad civil servants can frustrate the government’s best intentions and most innovative initiatives.

An efficient and effective public service delivery system is key to the country’s competitiveness. The speed with which the public sector serves the private sector determines the speed, efficiency and effectiveness of our corporations.

Although the Institute of Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland ranked Malaysia 23rd among 61 countries in the 2006 World Competitiveness Index, bureaucratic red tape continues to discourage investors from moving their operations and money into the country.

Infosys Technologies Ltd, India’s leading software exporter, revealed during a briefing for Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak at its head office last year that the company had picked Kuala Lumpur for an information technology centre but it was forced by bureaucratic hurdles to move the investment to another country instead.

The World Economic Forum, in its 2006 worldwide competitiveness ranking, placed Malaysia 101st among 117 countries on the issue of government red tape hindering economic growth.

As the largest service provider in the country, the government has a duty and responsibility to ensure that its services are effective, low cost and fast.

Only such a service delivery system can create a favourable business climate and fulfil the needs of citizens. This in turn will contribute to economic growth and national wellbeing.

However, the structure and character of the civil service make it resistant to change and innovation. Despite denials by its defenders, the civil service is probably home to many ‘malingerers and slackers’, a description used by a national newspaper.

Perhaps it is time for the government to follow the lead of global corporations in outsourcing its services to the private sector wherever feasible.

This method could save operating and salary costs, reduce staffing and raise efficiency. It could even fit in nicely with the government’s proposed introduction of the EPF-style contributory pension scheme for civil servants in the near future which may become a disincentive in attracting new recruits.

Many government services have already been privatised, such as operation of airports, garbage collection and provision of telecommunications, energy and water supply services.

Many more layers of official red tape can be removed by outsourcing more functions to private firms which are more efficient, more motivated and move more quickly.

We have world-class companies that have the skills and track record to handle most types of jobs from the planning stage right down to design and implementation.

One day, we may be able to see private frontline staff manning government departments who not only respond courteously and knowledgeably to enquiries but are eager to offer their assistance.

That will really make our day.