January 16, 2019 10:49 PM
January 16, 2019 10:49 PM
01/08/2007 01:49
Changing the Culture of the Civil Service of Vietnam: A Foreigner’s Perspective
(Presentation by Mr David Ma at the International Workshop on Public Administration Reform in Vietnam, 25th – 26th November, 2006, Hanoi, Vietnam)

Let me start by saying that what I am going to present to you is one man’s perspective. I am not here to prescribe what to do; neither am I here to teach anybody anything. Just treat what I am going to say as the rumblings of an old man, someone who had been in two different civil services for over three decades.

After graduation, I joined the Hong Kong civil service, and then the civil service of Singapore three years later. My first job in the Singapore civil service was in the Planning Department of the Ministry of National Development. It was a very different environment from where I worked before. The planners were a bunch of young officers. They were friendly, enthusiastic, and they took their job seriously. They knew what they were doing, and gave of their best in what they did. It was a joy working with them.

I wondered what gave them that work ethic. It could not be money, because the Singapore civil service pay then was much lower than that of Hong Kong. In fact, civil servants suffered a pay cut when the country became independent.

Gradually I discovered a few things. First, they had a shared vision – to take Singapore out of the third world into the first world. Singapore was a young nation then. She got her independence just a few years earlier. There was a sense among the planners of creating their own destiny. That sense of purpose made them passionate about what they did. And they believed they could do it because they were the best and the brightest. They took pride in their work and wanted every piece of work to be of the highest quality. Over time, civil servants like them help Singapore develop what many outsiders call a culture of excellence. How does that culture come about?

My definition of culture is simple: the way we do things. And different people do things differently. Recently, I checked in to a private hotel in one of the provinces in Vietnam. At breakfast, I met two local consultants I knew. They told me that they had just moved in from a government run guest house. They complained bitterly about the terrible service provided by the guest house. More often than not, they didn’t get the service they wanted, and when the service finally came, it was not up to expectations. Nobody in the guest house cared. So they moved to the privately owned hotel. They felt that there was no point paying the same amount of money, and not getting any service.

I was happy that I didn’t have to go through that ordeal. The people running the private hotel did things very differently. Whatever I asked, they gave and gave fast. One thing I always ask for is hot water in the room for me to make tea. The first day I arrived, during check in, I asked to have a flask of hot water in my room. After collecting the key, I went into the room. Just as I was putting down my bag, someone knocked at the door and there it was: my flask of hot water. And that quick response to my request happened not once, but a few times. It was amazing. I didn’t know how they could do it that fast. After a few days, they knew my habit, and automatically put a flask of hot water in the room before I returned at around 6 pm. On Saturdays and Sundays, when I didn’t have to go to the office, they gave me two flasks, one in the morning and one in the evening, without me asking.

One Sunday, I had lunch in the hotel restaurant. Usually, the food came quite fast. That day, it took longer than usual. After a few minutes, one waiter came to apologise to me, explaining that because there was a wedding in the restaurant, the chefs would need a bit more time to prepare the food. Later, a waitress came, apologised to me again, and passed me another plate of peanuts, presumably to keep my mouth occupied so that it would not complain. I must say that even in some first world countries, I don’t get that sort of treatment.

What makes the staff of the privately owned hotel behave so differently from the staff of the government owned guest house? It would be interesting to find out. So, when I met the manager one day, I complimented his staff for doing a great job and took the opportunity to ask him how he managed to do it. He told me that the hotel recruited only the best; the best to the hotel meant those who were keen to serve customers, not just those with diplomas or certificates. After the hotel recruited them, it gave them some training, with an emphasis on customer service skills. The hotel didn’t pay them too much, but if they did a good job, and if the hotel did well, they received a small bonus. The more I listened to him, the more I saw the commonalities between the Singapore civil service and the hotel.

And the good news is: what the two organisations have done, any other organisation can do.

What are the commonalities?

First, they have a vision. The hotel wants the customers to be well served. Singapore wants to be part of the first world. Then they recruit people who share that vision. They are not too concerned whether the people have the skills or not. They are more concerned about the attitude of the people they recruit. That’s why the hotel does not hold entrance examinations for its recruits. Neither does the Singapore civil service. Recruits simply go through an interview. The purpose is to assess the person’s attitude. Why does he want to join the civil service? Will he be happy serving customers? How is he going to work with his colleagues? Etc. Etc. The reason is simple. Knowledge and skills can be picked up easily, but attitude is difficult to change. Once you have the people with the right attitude, you have a good chance of success.

The Government of Vietnam has a vision too: to turn Vietnam into a full market economy with a socialist orientation. Setting the vision alone, however, is not enough. The political leaders must also have the support of civil servants to translate that vision into reality. When civil servants do not share that vision, they will not do much to turn it into reality. The challenge is to recruit civil servants who share that vision and who want to work towards achieving it. As long as the civil service of Vietnam recruits people based on their academic qualifications and their theoretical knowledge of state management, the challenge will be difficult to meet.

Second, both the hotel and the Singapore civil service look for the best people, people who are proud of who they are and what they do. In the hotel restaurant, one friendly waiter asked where I came from. I said, “I came from Singapore. I am a Singaporean.” And he replied, “I am from Vietnam. I am an Ede.” The way he said it, there was no mistake of the great sense of pride he had in himself. Because he was proud of being a Vietnamese, and of being an Ede, he gave of his best, and he demanded the best from his colleagues. At breakfast time, he made sure that all the plates and glasses were properly placed, and whenever he saw used plates and dirty glasses around, he would remove them. He couldn’t tolerate tables that were cluttered with dirty plates and glasses.

Yet, not everybody is motivated by that sense of service, by the satisfaction of doing a good job. In May this year, NAPA, CIEM, and GTZ produced a joint report “The current salary system in Vietnam’s public administration.” I would like to quote you the following:

“[T]here is an emergency case in a public hospital. If the patient wants to be taken directly to the emergency room without having to wait in the check-up room, he may need to give the guard or security officer some VND 10 thousand to open the gate for the ambulance to get through to the emergency room. In the emergency room, in order to borrow accessories such as mats, blankets, and pillows he may have to give the midwife VND 5 thousand. For every injection, without a few thousand VND given to the nurse, the patient may suffer more from pain caused by an injection that is done too fast or carelessly.”

Apparently, the workers in that public hospital are not motivated to serve unless they receive some benefits in return. That public officers are motivated mainly by money is creating another set of problems for hospitals. Two years ago, I visited a public hospital here in Hanoi. The chief administrator told me he had great difficulty getting people to work in the office. Everybody wanted to be in jobs that had direct contact with patients. Although working in the office represented a promotion to some of them, the officers would end up earning less because they could no longer receive gifts from the patients and their families.

Not too long ago, local newspapers reported a public opinion survey done in Ho Chi Minh City. The survey findings were so far from reality that nobody, except the agency that commissioned the survey, believed in them. Even my friends in the ministries in Hanoi made joke of the survey. Recently, I read a public opinion survey report prepared by a well-known institution in Vietnam. The report had significant omissions. I would not have accepted it; my colleagues in the Singapore civil service would not have accepted it; neither would my Ede friend, if he knew what the report was about. Yet, the two highly educated authors simply produced the report without regard to quality, and the agency that commissioned the report gladly paid for it. Such incidents reflect what my two local consultant friends said of the government run guest house – nobody cares. Nobody cares because nobody takes pride in what anybody does.

Third, both the hotel and the Singapore civil service pay attention to training, training that helps the individual to do a good job, not to gain a master’s degree or a PhD. During the mid-term review of the PAR Master Programme, MOHA put up a review report, in which it mentioned one fundamental shortcoming of the training system: “trainees are not taught what they need, and worse still, they may not be able to put the knowledge learnt into practice.”

One reason is the tendency to train civil servants by the grades they are in, not by the functions they perform. As the functions of each grade cover a wide range, it is no surprise that most of the training an expert or senior expert receives is not applied on the job. Moreover, training tends to focus on general state management, not on the requirements of the job. To address the shortcoming, MOHA has approved some short skill-based training courses for civil servants and NAPA will conduct them.

Fourth, both the hotel and the Singapore civil service assess their staff regularly, and reward them for doing a good job. The hotel pays the staff a bonus when it makes a profit as a result of the staff doing a good job. Similarly, the Singapore civil service pays civil servants a bonus if they have done well in the year of assessment. The Government of Vietnam pays bonuses to civil servants as well, but more often than not, the payment is treated as supplementary income than a reward for good performance. This is what the NAPA, CIEM, and GTZ report has to say,

“It is striking to note that there is always a correlation between salary and bonus. In some cases, bonuses are divided equally, creating some form of egalitarianism. In other cases, bonuses are paid in proportion to the salary the individual civil servant or public employee receives. Thus, those who have worked longer for the government and whose salary is higher would receive a higher bonus whether they deserve it or not.”

“What is measured gets done” may be an old saying. But it is still applicable today. If the Government wants civil servants to perform well, it must have a system to measure their performance, to reward the outstanding performers, and to help the poor ones. If everybody gets a share of the bonus regardless of performance, civil servants will not take their job seriously.

What I have said so far is not new to MOHA, the organisation in charge of civil service matters. Similar challenges and possible solutions have been mentioned in numerous reports and papers, ranging from the 2004 report by Minister Trung “The Study Tour on Public Sector Salary Policies in Malaysia and Thailand” to the recent paper by Mr Tran Quoc Hai, a MOHA officer and a PhD student in NAPA, “Strengths of the Job Civil Service System for Institutional Civil Service Reform in Vietnam.” Yet we are still talking about the same challenges and solutions today. What then is lacking?

Maybe what we need is an explicit value system to pull all the factors together. The hotel has a value system that centres on “service.” The Singapore civil service has a value statement that focuses on “integrity,” “service,” and “excellence.” Everybody in the two organisations understands what the values mean and strives to live those values.

Vietnam has its value system too. As early as 1947, Uncle Ho already talked about a set of revolutionary values (dao duc cach mang). His starting point was: if you do not have values, you do not have a foundation. His foundation was built on five simple ideas:

•Benevolence – not to do anything that would have negative consequences on the people or the Party;
•Righteousness – commitment to carry out one’s duties to the best of one’s ability;
•Knowledge – awareness and ability to successfully carry out one’s work and avoid negative consequences;
•Courage – strength and fortitude to carry out difficult tasks; and
•Incorruptibility – not to covet status or money.

On incorruptibility, Uncle Ho also said that civil servants and cadres should not use the state mechanism to line their nests.

Some people may feel that the set of values is no longer relevant today as Vietnam is no longer a country at war and has fully integrated into the global economy. I would, however, argue that Uncle Ho’s five values are still of great relevance today. In fact, I would go further to argue that they are even more relevant in today’s increasingly materialistic world where money seems to be everything.

I do not know whether the Political Academy and NAPA are still imparting in civil servants and cadres the five values. If they are doing it, then they are not doing enough. They need to put in more efforts. They need to widen their reach to cover more civil servants and deepen their teaching to let the values take root in each and every civil servant.

Planting the five values firmly in each and every civil servant is important. Vietnam has become a part of the global market. Not only will goods and services flow in and out of the country easily, people and ideas will also do so. As society becomes increasingly vocal, diverse, and fluid, we need a set of common values to hold society together. The civil service must take the lead in living and upholding those values. Only then will ordinary Vietnamese feel proud of the civil service and of the Government.
Changing the Culture of the Civil Service of Vietnam: A Foreigner’s Perspective
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