Thailand needs new ways of governance 

To survive the post-Covid economy, Thailand needs to launch new ways of growth by up-skilling and re-skilling its workforce, investing in a green economy and bridging social disparities through a universal welfare system.

Without effective ways to drive growth, how can Thailand deal with the challenges in an age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA)? Perhaps, a bigger question is how to reform Thailand’s laggard bureaucracy already tasked to manage the VUCA?

Judging from past performance, the country’s bureaucratic state has miserably failed. Amid the pandemic, bureaucratic red tape partly caused long delays in vaccine procurement which have been blamed for unnecessary deaths and colossal economic losses.

Air pollution is another example of state failure to tackle complex, multi-faceted problems. Although air pollution has been a public health hazard for over 15 years, involved state agencies have failed to come up with a coordinated and effective way to tackle sources of pollution, such as farm waste burning, vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions. Instead, the government relies on superficial gimmicks such as spraying water into the air or making artificial rain.

The crux of the problem lies in a bureaucratic state overloaded with rigid rules and burdensome regulations. We can include in this state officials’ silo mentality, coupled with an inward-looking mindset that’s unreceptive to external actors’ innovative ideas and advice. It’s an old-fashioned organisation with a mindset that has become increasingly obsolete.

A new governance style is needed. One option is to shift towards a “networked government” with adaptive and collaborative abilities. A networked government’s operations are flexible with cross-agencies collaboration. It’s results-oriented with more trial-and-error experimenting and learning.

Let’s see what networked government looks like in practice.

During the pandemic, the United States set up cross-agency collaboration, called “Operation Warp Speed”, that cut red tape to speed up research and development for vaccine production. Admitting a risk of failure, it also made co-investments with pharmaceutical companies and purchase contracts in advance. As a result, the vaccines were available within a year, much faster than the average period of 10 years for vaccine production.

Another example was how the local government of the city of Louisville in Kentucky dealt with air pollution affecting residents with asthma. To do this, a start-up company was asked to develop electronic inhaler sensors used for asthma treatment. Analysing data on inhaler use combined with air quality data and other information, the company was able to warn asthma sufferers on a daily basis on what pollution affected areas to avoid. As a result, the number of emergency respiratory patients decreased significantly.

The idea of a networked government is not far-fetched for Thailand. For example, in a response to livestock disease outbreaks, Chiang Mai local municipality in 2016 developed a disease surveillance application under the Participatory Onehealth Disease Detection (PODD) network, a joint collaboration between the Ending Pandemic Foundation, Chiang Mai University, Opendream social enterprise, communities and local government.

With the foundation’s funding, Opendream launched an application in which local people can report abnormal livestock deaths and suspicious disease outbreaks. Chiang Mai University’s veterinary team then verifies the reported incidents within three days. When they are notified of verified outbreaks, officials of the Department of Livestock Development and local governments then take coordinated action to control the spread of diseases.

Another example is Chon Buri province’s Saen Suk Municipality’s Smart Safety for the elderly project providing emergency help to senior citizens, especially those bed-ridden. In the project, Burapha University and private enterprises have developed smart wristbands and necklaces for the elderly. In need of help, the elderly can press a button that sends emergency signals to the agencies able to help.

The cases above show another key feature of the networked government — a collaboration between state and non-state actors. Such decentralisation allows non-state agencies to take initiatives, while state agencies would sometimes play a supporting role, resulting in more quality and creative public services.

However, the Thai style of bureaucracy is profoundly centralised.

For example, salaries of central state agencies and provincial offices account for 60% and 21.7%, respectively, while of the total public employees in 2020, 18.3% were for local government.

A study by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) also found that excessive central regulation incurs an extra burden of 1.3 trillion baht a year onto both the public and businesses.

Having said that, the central government should remodel itself to become a facilitator. It should help empower and enable local governments, communities and social ventures to manage these tasks themselves. Meanwhile, rigid and obsolete regulations must be rectified and updated to foster network collaborations.

It is imperative that local governments be autonomous in order to be responsive to local demands. Indeed, this issue has been discussed for over two decades without much progress. For example, local governments in coastal provinces do not have the power to buy clean-up equipment that will enable them to tackle an oil spill.

To empower local governments it’s necessary they set up a decentralisation plan that specifies both goals and problems. The plan needs to outline what authorities need to be devolved and look at what partnerships can be implemented between local governments with other local actors.

The Ministry of Interior’s excessive authority should also be cut to enable local governments to fully take care of their people’s well-being.

Local governments must also have more financial autonomy with more local taxing power and allocation of general grants. Currently, they can spend only 16% of their budget and revenues for their own plans, while the remaining goes on projects pre-determined by the central government.

The other key part of networked government is a vigorous private sector and strong civil society that can encourage new ideas for public policies while also effectively monitoring state operations. Yet, fostering such initiatives requires restructuring the current economic and political structure that condones monopolies but suppresses civil participation.

According to the Puey Ungphakorn Institute for Economic Research, the top 5% of corporations took around 85% of Thailand’s corporate profits. Thailand’s democracy and political participation index has significantly dropped since the 2014 coup.

Worse, the government is in the process of introducing a law on non-governmental organisations, aiming at clipping the wings of civil society. For civil society to be part of a multi-sector collaboration for network governance, the government must curb its excessive power and support the people’s participation.

A networked government is Thailand’s future but it’s only possible in a democratic society that is open to new ideas and visions. It is only a pipe dream when society remains in the firm grip of political and business monopolies.

Article by Supanutt Sasiwuttiwat, Research fellow

First Published: Bangkok Post on 2 FEB 2022

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