Hacking the Operating System of the Thai State: Learning from Handling the Covid-19 Crisis to Prepare for New Challenges

If Thailand is a computer, its bureaucracy is an outdated operating system that needs a drastic upgrade to restore system competency, a move that must start with a new inclusive constitution, said Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich, president of Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

“It is mandatory for Thailand to reform the bureaucracy. Like an old computer, its outmoded operating system cannot cope with the magnitude of modern-day challenges. 

“The system needs a drastic upgrade if Thailand wants to maintain economic competency and effectively cope with a myriad of complex problems that come with the elderly society, digital revolution, and climate crisis,” he added.

Bureaucratic reform is the theme of the 2020 TDRI Annual Conference which took place during Oct 5-7 at its headquarters. Entitled “Hacking the Bureaucracy: Changing Thailand’s Operating System,” the conference was held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Following a keynote speech by Dr Prasarn Trairatvorakul, TDRI Chairman and former Governor of the Bank of Thailand on “State, Bureaucracy, and Thailand’s Challenges Ahead,” Dr Somkiat scrutinised the bureaucratic state comparing it to an old computer with an outmoded operating system ready to crash. 

In his talk entitled “State Competency and Thailand’s Future,” Dr Somkiat explored the officialdom’s performances, where the problems lie and urged for immediate bureaucratic reform.

“The reform requires a new and inclusive constitution which has strong checks and balances mechanisms for the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches while increasing people’s participation to monitor people in public office,” he stressed.


Comparing the officialdom to an outmoded computer, he said its archaic architecture cannot cope with the avalanche of big data and disruptive technological advances. “The software is too outmoded, the memory too small and speed too slow, making the system vulnerable to crashes,” he said.

With an obsolete operating system and software, Thailand as a bureaucratic state becomes unresponsive, ridden with outdated, burdensome laws, and prone to serious policy mistakes.

The repercussions are severe: inequalities, environmental degradation, and political instability without rule of law. 

This operating system urgently needs upgrading. Not only because it is outdated, but also because it has become dangerous to the system’s existence, he pointed out.

“Thailand urgently needs to reform the whole bureaucracy because how it operates determines the country’s competency and competitiveness. It determines the country’s future,” he said.

For the country to survive the fiercely competitive global arena, for the young generation to have hope in their future, Thailand must reform the autocratic bureaucracy, he stressed.

“Towards reform, however, we need to know where the present state of the Thai bureaucracy is, where things go wrong, what kind of state we want, and how best to move the country forward.”

Some may argue that the Thai state is already highly efficient, judging from its success to protect the country from the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Thailand’s strong public health sector is key to the country’s successful Covid-19 containment, he said. But equally important is all-out cooperation from the citizenry despite the difficulties they must face. The decision of national leaders to allow public health experts taking the centre stage cannot be dismissed either.

The country has also avoided an economic collapse from the pandemic amid the world’s worst recession. The credits must go to the country’s strong macroeconomic policies, he added.

“Yet, we must admit that the Thai state lacks competency in many other areas,” he pointed out.

A simple test is eye-opening. One research tests 159 countries’ competency by sending them 10 letters with false addresses which should be returned to senders within 30 days, according to international standards. Thailand returned only two letters and they took 90 days to reach the sender.

The competency of different state agencies also varies, he pointed out. Out of the score of 100, the Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) gives 90 to the Finance Ministry in charge of macro-economy, 89 to the Public Health Ministry, 62 to Education and Labour Ministries, and only 55 to the country’s bureaucratic and legal systems. Thailand overall gets only 68. 

Citing a TDRI research, Dr Somkiat said the government shows high competency in public infrastructure and poverty alleviation. Its score on anti-monopoly and skill development, however, is slightly above average while its performance on environmental protection is well below average.

For wealth distribution, Thailand gets the score of only 14 out of 100 in the TDRI study, reflecting gross disparity as the country’s wealth gap and inequality are among the worst in the world.

“Overall, Thailand is fairly competent, but not enough to get out of the middle-income trap. The difficulty is great when, according to the Building State Capacity Report, Thailand’s economic competitiveness is sharply declining, then most likely to be overtaken soon by Vietnam given its better-performing bureaucracy, better legal enforcement, and less corruption,” he explained.

Thailand’s affliction does not stem from a lack of financial resources, he noted. “The crux of the problem is bureaucratic inefficiency.”

Backed by low public debts and tax revenues, the government has money to expand road networks, but road accidents remain among the highest in the world. 

The biggest chunk of the national budget goes to the Education Ministry, but the quality of the educational system is not only lagging far behind international standards but also worsening over the years. 

According to PISA, 40% of Thailand’s 15-year-olds are “functionally illiterate” in science, 50% of them in mathematics, and 60% in reading. 

During the pandemic, the government had the money for handouts. But the money missed the most in need while the process is ridden with bureaucratic red tapes.

Getting out of the middle-income trap has been the goal of successive Thai governments. Statistics show, however, that only 13 out of 101 countries could attain similar goals. All of them have competent governments. 

Research on competent governments shows they constantly seek to better understand the needs of their citizens and invest extensively in behavioural science to understand what makes them tick, said Dr Somkiat. Some of them include Estonia’s digital government and the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Possibilities.

Around the world, more than 200 state agencies have used behavioural research to improve their efficiency, from tax collection, organ donation, job placement, CO2 reduction, to the improvement of healthcare services. 

Behavioural research also helps state agencies see potential risks in their line of work which helps them to fix loopholes to prevent tax evasion, crimes, accidents, and other problems.

Incompetent governments, meanwhile, do not have people in their radars, he said.

While artificial intelligence is advancing by leaps and bounds, the competency of Thailand’s gigantic bureaucracy is worsening as it is increasingly losing touch with popular needs and left behind by digital technologies, he pointed out.

Run by an obsolete operating system, the state is subsequently ridden with outmoded software in the form of autocratic laws with high social and human costs from injustice. 

Knowledge is power, but the static bureaucracy does not have accurate and comprehensive data for competent decision-making. 

“The interface system is also poor, both between state agencies and the public, making it burdensome for the public to navigate the red tape labyrinth. Often, the problems escalate and the system crashes.”

The country needs to fix the bureaucracy not only to increase state competency but also to empower civil society and the citizenry, he stressed.

Dr Somkiat recommended four main areas for immediate reform:

  • Bureaucratic reform for more efficiency and responsiveness; 
  • Institutional reform for inclusive laws that are just, cost-effective, and adaptable to change; 
  • Information system reform for better public services and efficient decision-making; and 
  • Interface system overhaul for better understanding of people’s needs to improve public services and collaborate more with civil society for common goals.

It takes a strong political system to achieve this tall order, he noted.

“The country needs a new direction. We need new inclusive rules. That is why we must start by creating a new, inclusive constitution,” he proposed.

Since the status quo is resistant, he said it requires continuous public demands and pressure to push for a democratic government that is competent and responsive. 

“The 1997 People’s Charter already provides a good basis for a strong government. The new constitution, however, needs to have a stronger system of checks and balances to prevent abuse of power.”

This can be done by increasing people’s participation in every level of state governing, he suggested. “In Parliament, the elected representatives should have more authority to audit the government. As part of direct democracy, the public must be able to sponsor laws and scrutinise people in public office. Decentralisation should also expand further after suffering a setback for several years.”

Meanwhile, the new charter should curtail the excessive power of the judiciary and so-called independent organisations, allowing them to scrutinise the executive branch only when it involves grave violations of the law.

Equally important, the new charter must endorse the roles of the media and civil society to monitor and scrutinise the government, he stressed.

“At present, the government has the raw power to harass dissenters and violate the citizens’ rights and freedoms. Yet it fails miserably to solve the country’s problems.”

If this continues, he said there is no chance for the gigantic and outmoded bureaucracy to tackle the country’s problems now or in the future. 

Given the outmoded bureaucracy, Thailand cannot get out of the middle-income trap, reduce road deaths, bridge disparity, nor fulfil its basic duty of helping the weak and poor effectively, he said. 

“If state inefficiency continues, Thailand cannot cope with the more complex challenges that come with the elderly society, digital revolution, and climate crisis.”

Reform is mandatory not only for the cabinet and various ministries, but also for Parliament and the judiciary, he said.

“We must fix the obsolete operating system to restore the country’s competency,” said Dr Somkiat. “We must reform the whole bureaucracy if we want to give our country and our children a chance.”