Moving from Cooperation to Competition
Kong Sophy, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Civil Service in Cambodia, writes for Governance Matters about how reforms in the civil service are moving from a cooperative to competitive structure.
In the past three decades, Cambodia has made enormous political, economic, and social progress. My country has worked hard to improve political stability and social security, strengthen the rule of law, set our multi-party system on a firmer footing, and bolster the free-market economy, while integrating into international organisations at both a regional and global level.
This strong foundation has made a big contribution to the extraordinary economic growth that Cambodia has managed to achieve, averaging more than 7% per year between 1998 and 2019.1
This success provided an opportunity to increase public investment, human resource development, and enhance social protection, successfully reducing the poverty rate and narrowing inequality. In 2015, we reached the significant milestone of moving up to become a lower-middle income country.
Building a New Growth Model in the Wake of COVID-19
Sadly, like the rest of the world, Cambodia was severely affected by the spread of COVID-19. This not only claimed lives, it placed pressure on resources, with inevitable consequences for both the economic and social aspects of our medium- and long-term development plan. At the same time, the experience of the Government and the Cambodian citizens joining forces to fight against COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to learn lessons and to take stock.
Emerging from the pandemic, the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) is seeking to develop a new growth model offering the prospect of a sustainable, strong, and crisis-resilient economy. To that end, we recently set out Cambodia Vision 2050, a new model that will be highly responsive to changes in economic architecture and international trade, enhancing our national resilience.
This is a challenging time for ministers and public officials. Recent years of economic growth have, rightly, given Cambodian citizens high expectations of what to expect from the Government on public service. This is true across the board, but particularly in relation to education and healthcare services. At the same time, the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in Cambodia and around the world, have meant that we must seek to meet those expectations despite pressures on national resources.
After witnessing the success of Cambodia’s embrace of capitalism in fostering economic growth, the RGC has introduced some key elements of New Public Management, focusing on a results-based approach to public administrative reform policy in order to improve performance in the civil service, while respecting the core principles of the career system in Cambodia. Seniority remains an important criterion but it is being complemented by other criteria based on competencies, performance, and merit. This process can best be summarised as moving from cooperation to competition in the civil service and public administrative reform process.
The RGC is now working to expedite the reform process in all sectors by using digital transformation and strengthening the capacity of public institutions to deliver the best quality public services. The importance of this project cannot be stressed highly enough. As Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, has repeatedly said: “Reform is a life-and-death issue for Cambodia.”
A Professional Civil Service and Strong Public Institutions
It is widely acknowledged that the effectiveness of public services depends on the ability of civil servants, ministers, and public institutions to work effectively together. The improvement of public administration requires immediate and pragmatic action, and relies on the adoption of creativity, best practice methods and innovation, the use of digitalisation, and the broad participation of citizens. To achieve these things, we need strong public institutions and a civil service characterised by high levels of professionalism. These are the ultimate objectives of Cambodia’s civil service and administrative reform programme.
In 2015, the RGC approved its five-year National Programme for Public Administrative Reform (NPAR) with the vision “to transform the public administration into an effective public service provider and a reliable partner towards serving people better”. Key to this strategy were:
Promoting public service delivery which is high quality, simple, effective, reliable, prompt, responsive to needs, and easy to access with active participation from service users
Strengthening human resources management and development to improve civil servants’ performance, effectiveness, and reliability with strict adherence to the culture of service, motivation, loyalty, and professionalism
Reforming the pay system to ensure equity, and improve productivity and effectiveness as well as to ensure coherence and consistency of compensation between civil servants and the armed forces
Thanks to strong political support and the commitment of technical leaders and civil servants at national and sub-national levels, the NPAR has had a range of important successes. These have included freezing the number of civil servants; improving the public sector payroll system and, outside of the COVID-19 years, increasing pay levels; developing and implementing systematic and compulsory training for senior and mid-ranking officials; upgrading the Human Resource Management Information System database of civil servants; offering financial rewards to incentivise the best public service providers such as hospitals and schools; adopting information technology solutions in a number of different functions; providing key public services by one window service mechanism; and drafting a new law on public service provision, which is currently under public review.
Of course, we have also faced some challenges. Many line ministries and sub-national levels of administration are yet to incorporate the NPAR tenets into their annual budget and action plan, one of a number of priorities on which they still need to deliver. Some public service delivery procedures remain complicated, centralised, and bureaucratic; the use of IT in public administration is still limited; and the communication between ministries is not yet fully effective and requires a network approach. Career management and development are not systematically and effectively applied and the job descriptions of civil servants, vital to streamlining and accountability, are yet to be clearly established. Meanwhile the pay system is still not responsive to the principles of equity, effectiveness, and performance.
Harnessing the Power of Competition to Remake the Public Sector
Looking ahead, the priority for the next 10 years is to continue the work of moving from cooperation to competition, integrating private sector attitudes and approaches into the public sector, improving responsiveness and service quality, and ensuring that the needs of the citizen, rather than those of the civil servant, are the driving force.
We aim to achieve this by focusing on performance-based management, moving to what can best be described as a hybrid model between the career system and the employment system — introducing the sort of approaches and procedures that define best practice in the private sector as well as fit in best with Cambodia’s public administration. This will entail developing a comprehensive and systematic training programme to improve the professionalism, leadership, and skills of civil servants; implementing a performance management system across entire government institutions; and developing a pay scheme that is focused on supporting the productivity and skillset of those working within the civil service.
At a structural level, we also intend to align human resources plans with those of the national budget, rationalise and analyse the structure of line ministries, and move towards using digital technology as a platform to provide all government services. Throughout, we will need to undertake this mission in a manner that responds to Cambodia’s needs and which best fits with the country’s economic system and culture.
The aim of these measures, in moving from cooperation to competition, is to create a public sector system that is transparent, accountable, and responsive. These three elements are central to good governance and critical to introducing competition into the civil service. Transparency is vital if we are to evaluate the effectiveness of civil servants and ensure that the national resources with which they are entrusted are best used. Accountability, ensuring that actions have consequences, is central to our mission to ensure that power and authority are in the hands of those with the right knowledge and skills, not simply those who have chanced upon a senior job title. Responsiveness is the cornerstone of what Cambodian citizens expect when they turn to the state: efficient services designed and delivered with their needs in mind.
The Start of Our Great Growth Journey
Looking to the future, it is clear that Cambodia cannot afford to lag behind in the global governance race. We know that good governance is synonymous with continued growth and success. While we have enjoyed remarkable gains from globalisation, turbocharging our economy through industries such as garment exports and tourism, the next phase of growth presents challenges that must be met. The rise of China, and of the wider Asian bloc, presents enormous opportunities for Cambodia, well placed as it is to interact with those growth markets. However, as we have seen from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the disruption of world trade that has accompanied both, it is never wise to take the future for granted.
The Cambodia Vision 2050 plan is our response, but if we are effectively to navigate the decades ahead, we need a civil service and public administration system capable of carrying out the Government’s policy and strategy. Without a professionalised, efficient, digitised civil service, achieving the institutional flexibility required to be able to trim our sails in response to future economic storms will be a challenging task. Thankfully, our experience so far and the great improvements that have already been made are signs that Cambodia’s great growth story is only getting started.
Kong Sophy is currently the Secretary of State at the Kingdom of Cambodia’s Ministry of Civil Service. Since starting his career in 2000, he has held numerous positions in the Office of the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Civil Service including Head of Secretariat of Public Administrative Reform Committee, Director General of Civil Service Policy, Deputy Secretary General of the Council for Administrative Reform Committee, Director of the Priority Mission Group (PMG) Project, Director of the Governance Project, and assistant to the Program Manager for the National Program for Public Administrative Reform. He holds a Master’s degree in Public Management from Potsdam University in Germany, a Diploma of High-Ranking Official in Public Administration from Cambodia’s Royal School of Administration, and two Bachelor’s degrees.