Sunday, 3 January 2021

Is it time to trim the civil service?

Dr Fauziah Mohd Taib

IT'S that time of year when other than reflecting on the year that was, we also lament the food intake of the last few days. That is why one of the major seasons of slimming centres is the beginning of the year — everyone seems to make New Year's resolutions to lose "x" amount of fat, or in more diplomatic terms, "to get into shape".

Since the Movement Control Order began on March 18, many employees in Malaysia have been asked to work from home. The practice became an effective way to curb the spread of Covid-19 by ensuring people did not have to come into contact with each other.

As we now know that what started off as a two-week lockdown eventually became extended time and time again, and the work from home practice became a norm. Many became used to working from home. For many of us the luxury of not having to sit in traffic, of not having to make the daily commute, of being able to sit within the confines of a comfortable home was a God-send.

But not everyone can work from home. The first group of people are, of course, those in essential services, where their work as frontliners means they need to be out there for the country to function normally.

Then, there are those whose nature of work means they cannot work from home. Security guards, receptionists, cleaners, or delivery guys — any number of these employees need to be at their post in order to work. For them, online work is not an option.

Some businesses failed. Some adapted to a new way of doing business and survived. Others trudged along as they did previously, without much impact.

One sector that saw the impact of people having to stay at home during the pandemic was the civil service.

As counters and face-to-face interactions shut down, the government machinery floundered for the first few weeks before it finally managed to right itself and carry on with providing the services it was meant to provide.

In fact, even in November, when Putrajaya went under partial lockdown and government offices were operating at 30 per cent capacity, services to the people did not seem too impacted. The Immigration Department was able to go online for most of its services as it sifted through the mountain of requests that came in from either foreigners wishing to come in or Malaysians wishing to go out.

Other agencies and ministries were also able to adapt. Which leads us to the most obvious question. If the civil service can operate as normal with only 30 per cent capacity, does it not mean we have a bloated civil service as so many have already pointed out?

We have heard the arguments before — that Malaysia's civil servants also include the men and women in uniform who are indispensable to the country, that population increase also means that there has to be a corresponding increase in the government machinery and that these jobs contribute to the employment rate of the country and the economy as a whole.

These are all valid arguments, no doubt, but at the end of the day, even though the growth of the civil service provides more jobs, it also leaves us with a higher obligation to service the heavy pensions burden that comes with it.

Some of the jobs that we created at the turn of the century now seem superfluous in the post-pandemic age — the many tiers that we created so that there would be subordinates, the non-performers that were tolerated and mistakes in human capital that we learnt to live with.

If more work can be done online, then there is no need for so many counters or customer relations officers. If an officer can work from home, then he can work from virtually anywhere, so a big, grand and plush office then becomes a white elephant.

Now that we are in 2021 and have emerged in a whole new world, we need to take stock of how we can trim the fat. Resilience is born out of necessity; complacency out of abundance. Trimming the fat makes the entity perform better in the long run. Tell me, have you ever seen an overweight marathon runner?

Datuk Dr Fauziah Mohd Taib

The writer is a retired Malaysian diplomat who has since worked in a virtual office from home

Source: NST

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