Institutional Reforms or Leadership Change?

Khmer Times, Sunday, 06 March 2016


A Cabinet reshuffle is expected this year after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that if there were no quick and effective reforms, several cabinet ministers would be removed. The Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Agriculture have been rated as the lowest performers, but other ministries require systematic reforms as well. Ministers are being given a clear choice: institutional reforms or leadership change.
Rating and ranking the performance of government ministries is a welcome move. However, two sets of questions arise: what kind of institutions and/or mechanisms should be developed to objectively and scientifically evaluate ministries and what criteria, benchmark, and elements should be used to make assessments?
Public opinion obviously matters. The recipients of public services are well aware of the shortcomings and weaknesses of public institutions. If the government is willing to deepen reforms, it needs to establish an institutionalized feedback and complaint system.
Feedback and complaint forms should be made available and conveniently accessible to local communities. A more institutionalized and systematic online feedback system needs to be created in addition to the existing and proliferating Facebook pages.
However, skeptics and critics question and doubt the effectiveness of public sector reforms due to the fact that the state institutions have become complex networks of group and family interests. Internal power competition, nepotism and corruption have become more sophisticated and difficult to tackle.
Mr. Hun Sen has warned and alerted ministers about the need to reform several times, but no concrete reforms have been implemented. After the “watershed election” in 2013, in his remarks at the first Cabinet meeting on September 25, 2013, he urged his newly appointed ministers to practice self-criticism. “Look at yourself in the mirror, take a bath, and rub off dirt from your body, if there is any…We must change or we will fail…We must change our attitude, way of thinking and action in delivering on our election promises,” he firmly stated.
Time is running out for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to accelerate reforms and leadership change. The symptoms of bad governance are clear. It is now up to the prime minister, who needs to face the hard truth, whether to have “simple treatment” or “surgery” for his administration.
“Surgery” is a painful process. However, even though it involves risks and comes with a certain level of uncertainty, it is a necessary process to get to the roots of the problem.  Mr. Hun Sen has enough confidence, political support, and popular support to decisively reshuffle Cabinet ministers and deeply reform the public sector.
Strong leadership is required to deliver results-oriented reforms. Bureaucratic capacity is needed to effectively implement a reform agenda. Meritocracy is vital to recruit qualified staff to do the job.
Reforms should not only aim to win elections but also to build a legacy for future generations. Transparent, accountable, responsive and accountable state institutions are fundamental to sustainable peace and development.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen has been recognized as the main architect of peace building in Cambodia, particularly through his win-win policy of neutralizing the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, he falls short of promoting good governance in the Kingdom.
In the final phase of his political leadership and stewardship – how long he will stay in power depends on people’s choice and his own will – he has shown his commitment to implement necessary reforms to strengthen state institutions.
A Cabinet reshuffle will mark the new beginning of public-sector reform. It should be followed by bureaucratic reforms that ensure meritocracy takes hold. Now is the time to be serious.

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