Mon 11 Mar 2013
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Sometimes the most radical changes come from the most unlikely quarters. Take Myanmar, where some of the boldest reforms are emerging from government agencies, parliamentary committees and taskforces with underwhelming names such as Myanmar Microfinance Supervisory Enterprise, the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, and the Government Guarantees, Pledges and Undertakings Vetting Committee.
Now comes the Public Services Performance Appraisal Task Force – a powerful body recently created by President Thein Sein to slash government red tape, eliminate duplication and reduce fees and streamline bureaucracy across the gamut of public services.
In a country known for excessive bureaucracy as well as corruption, Thein Sein has promised to streamline bureaucracy and improve delivery of public services, as well as to root out corruption.
After the introduction of a new foreign investment law, the president’s push to deliver public services and clean up government is undoubtedly as much about wooing the public ahead of national elections in late 2015 as it is about the pursuit of good governance.
Even so, the government is clearly determined to deliver. In a recent report to parliament, the president’s office claimed that almost 17,000 state employees had been disciplined between April 2011 and December 2012, with some 380 workers sent to jail, about 4,900 dismissed, and 80 forced to return money. About 690 police personnel were also punished for corruption, it said.
The public services task force is already displaying the same reformist zeal as the president’s newly created Anti-Corruption Committee.
Comprising 12 to 15 members including cabinet ministers, academics and politicians, the body is headed by Tin Naing Thein, a former commerce minister who recently became one of a small group of “uber-ministers” in the office of the president.
With a direct reporting line to the president, the team is required to report back within two months with recommendations that could include the restructure or elimination of some government departments, changes in personnel, reform of fee structures and bureaucratic processes. Some, but not all, its recommendations will have to be approved by parliament. But changes are already in place on smaller procedures, such as duplication of forms.
To gather firsthand information, the team, in an unusual move, last week launched consultations in Yangon with business groups, ordinary consumers and bureaucrats.
In one such session the task force gathered 70 key business representatives for a day-long session to question them closely about customs, commercial tax and trade-related procedures such as export-import licenses,
In another session, the team visited several government agencies involved in passport issuance, to gather feedback from people applying to renew or gain passports, as well as to question officials about overlapping procedures and fee structures.
The aim, according to Zaw Oo, head of Myanmar’s leading think tank, MDRI-CESD, and a key member of the task force, is to “deregulate, streamline and overhaul the delivery of public services.”
In the case of passports and overseas travel, he noted, a Myanmar citizen must visit three or four government offices, wait about one month, fill in numerous forms and pay the equivalent of more than $500 (a steep sum in Myanmar, where the average wage is little more than $2 per day) to gain a passport. Each time they leave the country, citizens must fill out a lengthy form with details of their plans.
Not any more. Under the task force’s first actions, noth costs and waiting time for passports will be greatly reduced and onerous travel permission requirements will be removed – all within next month, noted Zaw Oo, adding: “This is really a significant breakthrough.
“You could say that this task force is one of the most important moves the president has made,” U Win Aung, president of the UMFCCI, Myanmar’s main business group, and a key presidential adviser, told the FT.
“It’s important for business and for ordinary people… we are talking about any and every government department that has any dealings with the public – customs, telecoms, ports, utilities, and so on. This is really big,” he said.
One of the team’s early decisions was to change the term “government servant” – the literal Myanmar title – to “public servant”. “That’s because these people should be there to serve the public, not just the government,” added Win Aung.