Governance newsmaker Interview with Dr. Ahmed Darwish, Egyptian Minister of State for Administrative Development
By Rami G. Khouri
Systems, mindsets top civil service reform priorities in Egypt
CAIRO: Reforming the massive civil service in Egypt, including reducing petty corruption and increasing efficiency, will take many years to achieve, because of the slow nature of cultural change, but the man charged with achieving this task believes the process is finally underway, and initial breakthroughs can be identified.
Dr. Ahmad Darwish, Minister of State for Administrative Development, said in an interview from his Cairo office in early December that three main issues loom as priorities: changing the mindset of civil servants so that they accept reforms that will benefit them and the country; revising the structure of the civil service system so that it focuses on core functions and contract or outsource rather than support ones; and, improving the efficacy of service delivery systems in a manner that enhances efficiency and reduces petty corruption.
“The single most challenging task for us is changing the culture of the civil service, to speed up the pace of change and overcome resistance to change,” he said. “People are always afraid of what they don’t know, but once we can explain to them that reforms will make their lives easier in terms of the way they are doing their jobs and so on, they accept and appreciate the new system.”
He believes that most civil servants worry that reforms will cost them their jobs, or subject them to much more stringent monitoring systems. So among his most difficult challenges has been the need to convince people about the sincerity of the government in its modernization plan. The second most difficult step, he believes, “is to untangle the work processes and the work cycle, because the more complicated they are the more they open the way to corruption.”
His ministry’s analysis shows that civil servants value and cling to the level of authority they have, and sometimes abuse it for personal gain. They will only change if they feel that reforms will benefit them as well as make the entire system more efficient for the country as a whole.
“People in general are not willing yet to extend their hand to us. And I think that it is our job to take a few steps forward and extend our hand and show changes that work for all, until they trust us and they see that we are doing a very good job, and they start working with us,” he concludes.
A primary area of focus for the ministry in its anti-corruption effort is to change the way that citizens access government services. This can be implemented relatively quickly, by using electronic systems like cell phones, call centers and internet. By providing a new model for service delivery through such channels, citizens do not need to meet civil servants face to face every time they conduct a bureaucratic procedure, which will reduce some forms of corruption and abuse of power.
Darwish explains that, “The most problematic issue in the civil service in Egypt it not bribery in its well known definition all around the world, which is paying money to accomplish an illegal transaction. This exists but at a very low rate. The bribery most common in Egypt is payment to speed up legal transactions, you pay money to get what is your own right.”
At the larger national policy level, efforts revolve around the newly created Committee of Transparency and Integrity, which advises him on devising a strategy for more transparency and integrity in government administration. This quasi-governmental committee (four members from government and eleven from outside government, including from opposition parties) has been slow to take root, but recently seems to have gained more public visibility and confidence, Darwish believes. One reason is that some of their recommendations in their annual report have been adopted by the government, and send the message that change can happen at a relatively fast pace in some areas (such as Ministry of Finance procedural and budget transparency changes, and the creation of an ombudsman office in Egypt).
The growing trust in the committee is probably its most significant accomplishment to date, the minister suggests, to the point where there is unofficial talk about making it totally non-governmental and designating it as the national focal point for the implementation of the UN convention against corruption.
Structural constraints like over-staffing will take more time to change, and are being addressed through a two-pronged strategy. All government employees are being classified according to established international criteria, which will enhance the management of the civil service staff by focusing on those who administer services to the public. The second prong is to hold steady the size of the civil service by hiring only to replace those who retire, so that the size of the civil service relative to the entire work force in Egypt will decline steadily over the coming decades.
A fascinating aspect of the ministry’s work is to understand the values of Egyptians and how these apply in public jobs. The ministry commissioned a major national study (done by Cairo University) that sought to understand the current values of Egyptians and to see if they had changed in recent decades.
“The most incredible observations that prompted us to do this study were that some people who are taking bribes are actually very religious people, individuals who would take a petty bribe and then go to pray in the mosque of the organization they are working for. So it came to us as a surprise how people are separating between their religious values and the way they deal with each other,” Darwish explained. He concludes that the core of Egyptian values remains strong and clean, but with time the surface has become “tarnished” and needs to be cleaned up. Educational efforts are one method that will be needed for long-term change, he says.
Also at the national level, Darwish sees no problem with the dual efforts of his ministry and the Central Agency for Organization Administration (CAOA).
“They should not be merged into one, because they have different jobs. The Ministry sets policies and works on regulations, while the CAOA is the implementer that deals with day to day and on the ground issues. Whatever is in their hands to put into practice, they are doing. But I have other policies that we can not implement without changing the law, that is to say we can not proceed without Parliament approval. This I have not been able to get through,” he says, pointing out one of the bottlenecks in the civil service reform process in Egypt.
He believes Parliament is interested and supportive, “but this interest and support in the Parliament are not being translated into a civil service law, frankly because the civil service law is not one that a parliamentarian will take to his people and say that it is good for them, unlike health insurance, pensions, or increased water and sewage spending. The law has benefits that people would like, but also new regulations for getting civil servants to be accountable, with penalties, and so on. If we are serious about reducing corruption, it is about time that the penalties are a bit more deterring than the current ones.”
Tracking the impact of the ministry’s work will soon expand by establishing some benchmarks and key performance indicators that Darwish feels, “will allow us in a very scientific way to consistently gauge if the measures we are taking are actually efficient and what impact they have. This is very important for us. We are, for example, measuring if people are moving to the new service provision model, and if they are moving, where they are moving to, and is this helping them?”
The slowest progress, he feels, is in areas where human resources are involved in a big way, given the time and effort needed to change mindsets and behavior. The most significant accomplishments, on the other hand, are in the e-government program, which ranked 28 out of 192 in the UN rankings (compared to a rank of 160 in 2001). Progress is also evident in the area of national databases and government to government network (linking government agencies together and exchanging information). One area this has been translated into tangible benefits is building the family database and issuing a family card to poor families. By the end of this fiscal year, he says, 11.8 million Egyptian families will have family cards that will give them access to subsidized grocery shopping, cash payments, and health insurance. Over Six million families have the card today.