New powers granted by constitution could bring efficiency, reform; experts remain skeptical

By Tu Giang , Thanh Nien News. Original Vietnamese story by TBKTSG

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A public servant (L) works with landing papers at a state agency. File photo A public servant (L) works with landing papers at a state agency. File photo

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A legal expert says that the revised Constitution gives the Vietnamese government and the national legislature more power to reform the country’s administrative system, but questions remain about how soon and how effectively reform will arrive.
During his recent visit to a local high school, Pham Minh Chinh, secretary of the Party Unit in the northern province of Quang Ninh, came across four security guards and four cleaners working in front of the school.
“After working here for 10 years, have you ever caught a thief?” he asked them.
“No," they replied. "It’s very safe here.” 
Chinh then met the school’s librarian who worked in a vast library with very few books.
“What’s your job?” the official asked.
“I receive newspapers and bring them to the principal,” the librarian said.
The official asked the same question of a clerk, who replied: “I forward newspapers to the library.”
The school’s abundant staff was typical of administrative systems throughout Quang Ninh.
In Ha Long Town’s Hong Hai Ward, 475 people make up the People’s Committee.
Mao Khe Town’s Dong Trieu District had 639 public servants.
Chinh said one commune he visited had less than 200 families, but more than 100 state employees.
He estimated that one in every 8.5 people in Quang Ninh works in the public sector and draws a salary from the state budget.
Every year, 60 percent of the province's roughly VND10 trillion (US$465.94 million) budget gets squandered on administrative costs, leaving almost no room for investment in development projects.
Quang Ninh is not the only locality that is burdened with a cumbersome administrative system.
Dr. Pham Duy Nghia, a legal expert with the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, said Vietnam’s government apparatus is like a matryoskha doll (also known as a Russian nesting doll) in that a single structure is repeated from the highest level to lowest one.
He said from the position of deputy prime minister downward, there are just “too many” deputy chiefs -- perhaps more than exist anywhere else in the world.
The expert ascribed the excess to Vietnam's “strange” habit of investing authority in a single chief who in turn needs many subordinates to assist him, instead of distributing authority to mid-level managers.
If authority were properly distributed, the number of deputies at each Vietnamese ministry could be reduced from six to one or two, he said.
Vietnam’s government employees now number some 2.5 million, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Although the ministry has never reported the number of people on the state’s payroll, a report released by the Ministry of Finance nearly one year ago pointed out that eight million people, including retirees, received salaries and welfare from the state budget.
That's one in every 11 Vietnamese citizens on the state payroll.
Nghia said the revised Constitution issued last year gives the government official executive powers -- a power it can use to divide its apparatus into two parts: the political executive branch that consists of politicians tasked with discussing and choosing policies; and the public service section that consists of people who carry out public duties.
Once such a division becomes clear, not only will the quality of policies be improved but the professionalism of public services will increase, he said.
According to Nghia, the new Constitution also gives the National Assembly power to rearrange power structures -- from the central to local governments -- offering yet another critical means for Vietnam to reform its national administration.
However, it remains unknown when and how effectively reform will occur.
Early this year, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced a plan to dismiss 100,000 underperforming government workers between 2014 and 2020.
The plan drew a great deal of criticism for mainly seeking to ask aged employees to take early retirement rather than improve overall government performance.
The plan resembles the ministry's approach to a resolution applied from 2008 to 2012; 67,000 people left their jobs within that period, 90.5 percent of whom took early retirement.
From 2010 to 2012, more than 41,000 public servants were recruited to fill the vacancies.
In other words, Vietnam’s efforts to streamline its administrative system have left a lot to be desired.

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