Khmer Times, 21 March 2016
Last Friday, Prime Minister Hun Sen revealed his much-anticipated new Cabinet members – five ministers were shifted to helm other ministries, while two deputy prime ministers and one minister were set to retire.
The reshuffle is regarded as a big move by the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party with the hope that it can regain public trust and confidence after the watershed election in 2013.
Two ministries that will undergo critical reforms are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, which will be led by Prak Sokhon, and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, which will be led by Sun Chanthol. These two promising candidates have earned public trust and confidence based on their past performance.
Local observers welcomed the Cabinet reshuffle but with reservations. Some local analysts have even expressed their disappointment that PM Hun Sen is not bold enough to dismiss low-performing Cabinet ministers.
Mr. Hun Sen tends to use “carrot” more than “stick” to deal with his loyal Cabinet members. Decision-making based on loyalty and emotion detracts from his reform path and efforts, which in turn harms his administration’s credibility in ratcheting up results-oriented reforms.
Low-performing ministries include the Agriculture, Public Works and Transport and Health. The ministers of these three ministries have been left, however, generally unscathed.
According to the letter submitted by PM Hun Sen to the National Assembly, outgoing Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun is nominated to be the Minister of Rural Development and the outgoing Transport Minister Tram Iv Tek is nominated to be the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications.
There is no change in leadership at the Ministry of Health.
This sets a not-so-good precedent for future Cabinet reshuffles and public administration reforms. To stay and play safe, Cabinet ministers tend to focus more on strengthening personal ties and loyalty with the prime minister than delivering genuine public service to the people.
To accommodate diverse interest groups and power seekers, government institutions have been expanded through the establishment of new ministries, agencies and authorities, some which have overlapping duties and responsibilities.
Public governance and administrative reforms in Cambodia converge towards “big bureaucratic machines,” which are doomed to be a fading fashion within the context of dynamic regional integration and increasing competition.
In reality, Cambodia does not need so many ministries. The government should reverse the trend and start merging ministries and authorities that have overlapping or similar responsibilities and promote one-stop services. Otherwise, bureaucratic capacity will remain very low.
Meritocracy is the foundation of public governance. The appointment of public servants needs to be based on talent, performance, and achievement instead of nepotism and loyalty. Meritocracy is a powerful vehicle to incentivize people to do their best and reach their fullest potential.
Singapore offers an important lesson here. Its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, said: “if you want Singapore to succeed…you must have a system that enables the best man and the most suitable [person] to go into the job that needs them”
Comparing the government to a human body, it has a big belly with a tiny head and skinny legs. By nature, such a body is unhealthy. The big belly refers to bureaucracy, head refers to research and development capacity, and legs refer to the private sector and civil society.
To sustain progress, Cambodia has to enlarge its head: investing more in research and development and reduce its belly by merging government ministries and agencies. It should also add muscle to its legs by supporting and empowering the private sector and civil society