Bureaucratic reform – the way forward

Computer operating systems must be upgraded constantly to improve performance. The country’s operating system — the bureaucracy — has not changed in 20 years, said Dr Boonwara Sumano, TDRI Research Fellow.

In her talk “State Bureaucracy as Thailand’s Operating System,” Dr Boonwara points out how the costly and gigantic officialdom operates without efficiency and responsiveness.

She also outlines the way forward for bureaucratic reform. Her recommendations include cutting red tape, switching to digital government, expanding decentralisation, and using sandbox experiments to overcome organisational silos.

As an operating system of the country, the bureaucracy must maximise its resources — personnel, money, mindset, laws, and information — to best meet public needs.

Dr. Boonwara Sumano – TDRI Research Fellow

The finding from the Economist Intelligence Unit is startling. It shows the state competency of Thailand in 2018 was nearly the same as 20 years ago.

The inefficiency does not come from a lack of resources nor money, Dr Boonwara pointed out.

The gigantic bureaucracy hires more than 1.3 million civil servants, and the overall government personnel expense costs around 1.1 trillion baht or one-third of the 2021 national budget. This is nearly 5% of the country’s GDP, much higher than South Korea and Singapore.

The bureaucratic incompetence in dealing with emergencies is evident in the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, she said. 

The cash handout scheme “Rao Mai Thing Kan (We won’t leave anyone behind)” is a case in point.

“The data systems are not connected. The scheme is insensitive to the target groups’ needs and constraints. As a result, the system is burdensome and inaccessible to a large number of people in need.”

The poorest of the poor and people with visual impairment, for example, cannot receive help because the scheme assumes that every citizen has smartphones and is familiar with electronic registration. 

The organisational silos also make it extremely burdensome for the unemployed to get state assistance during the pandemic. They are often sent from one agency to another and have to start the registration process all over again, inputting the same information that had already been given to the previous agency.

Dr. Boonwara Sumano – TDRI Research Fellow

The ID card system is another example of state insensitivity to citizens’ rights and privacy. “A person’s confidential information is open to all on the ID card when it can be stored in the chips,” she said. 

Despite the e-government drives, the e-services in state agencies still operate as silos, forcing the citizens to fill forms every time they seek different public services.

It is not that the government does not know what the problems are, said Dr Boonwara. In 2002, the Office of the Public Sector Development Commission was set up and backed by the 2003 Royal Decree on Good Public Governance. Among its objectives: decentralisation, reduction of red tape, efficiency through integrated bureaucracy, and performance-based on citizen satisfaction.

Yet, very little has been achieved, she said.

Dr Boonwara outlines how the government can achieve the goals of bureaucratic reform:  

  • Stop futile work, outsource, or use technology to cut red tape;
  • Use digital technology to make the system more efficient and user-friendly;
  • Decentralise and give sufficient resources to local government administrations to manage local affairs, including education;
  • Shift to multi-year budgeting for agenda-based, long-term projects;
  • Overhaul the silo work culture and forego the survival mindset. Create an inclusive work atmosphere to enable cross-agency teamwork to work with other stakeholders to tackle shared concerns in specific geographical areas. 

“This is how we should upgrade the country’s operating system,” she said. “Short of bureaucratic reform, the country definitely cannot cope with modern-day challenges such as the ageing society, gross disparity, the middle-income trap, and environmental degradation.”