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The Sun, 11 June 2009
Chief Secretary to the Government and co-chairman of Pemudah Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan is on a mission to make the civil service more people friendly. He talks to R. Nadeswaran and Terence Fernandez on the importance of communicating to the public.

PUBLIC relations has become the buzzword at government agencies but for them, it means organising roadshows, what to put into goodie bags and how many T-shirts to print. They should be turning to the “letters to the editors” pages and addressing the people’s complaints.

The challenge is to get people who are proactive, and among the 1.2 million civil servants many are proactive. I believe that some of the people in the public service can do well in the private sector, maybe even better.

According to (co-chairman) Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon, the people in Pemudah are even better than some in the private sector. So, here, where PR is concerned it’s all about being proactive.

Are people in the service allowed to show their potential? Their enthusiasm is cut short by superiors who are more comfortable with the old way of doing things.

That’s the beauty of the government; this prime minister and the previous PM encourage empowerment.

I don’t check with the PM all the time on certain things because he has empowered me to make the best decisions.

But civil servants must have the confidence to act on their own without waiting for clearance from the top over simple matters.

That’s why in golf there’s such a thing called local rules. So we also have our own conventions. In each department, if this rule exists, you follow (them), but don’t allow rules to prevent people from doing their best. That’s why I like to promote mentoring.

The other question is how many bosses like yourself will allow their subordinates to be empowered, proactive and think for themselves without (the bosses) feeling threatened.

All! You must allow them to grow. I advise and that’s bilateral. It’s the value of openness. I can say I don’t agree with something but you will not feel uncomfortable. That is the value of connectivity. For example, when you complain about visa or passport issues, when I write to the director-general of immigration, I will copy to you. So when I communicate with him, I will cc a copy to you so that you know what’s happening and can also interject if we are going the wrong way.

When you send a message to someone, you must keep everyone else in the loop. So I will forward mail to all the relevant agencies and individuals. This is what corporate governance is all about. One person can do many things, and yet keep everyone else in the loop.

If 50% of your KSUs (ministry secretaries-general) can talk or operate like you, then we are on the right track. Your problems are solved. Most times when people complain to us we don’t want to disturb you, but unfortunately things only get moving if it is copied to you.

We have quite a number of officials like me. (Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry secretary-general) Datuk Mohd Zain (Mohd Dom) is like me. You go and deal with him and see. If the deputy secretary-general is doing the work without bothering the secretary-general then why should the secretary-general be bothered or threatened, as long as he is kept in the loop? It’s better for him because he is not encumbered (with extra work).

Are we being double billed as there are internal PR departments but here we are appointing consultants and outsourcing PR to the private sector.

Former MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) minister Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz had no press secretary bar one. She allowed us to speak our minds … and this from a minister whom many say was “controlling”. Because of her, we made sure we knew the subject.

This is what I’m trying to say, we all take charge of our communications, the minister, the secretary-general, the deputy minister … you take charge of your communications just like her. It’s a new process for many and sometimes we need to learn from outsiders.

Tan Sri, you were from MITI so that culture followed you and everyone is on the same page. But, for example, look at the Health Ministry during the H1N1 scare. At least brief the media on the scanners and how the detection is done so that when you talk to reporters, we know how it works. Here they are waiting for the director-general to come and regurgitate information. How do we get around this?

When I joined the civil service in 1974, the principle was “need to know”. Only when you need to know you must know. When you know more than you need to know, tak boleh!

Now it’s “you better know!” If you don’t know you will be in trouble. When you go for a meeting you cannot say “I don’t come from that department or from that section”. I don’t care from which division you come from, you must be able to tell the position of your department.

So I ask (the officers) “you want me to be nice or rude to you?” If nice, I say “that’s not the way … can you take some time out and find out and tell me your position?” If rude then “you get out!”

So how do we change the mind of the civil servants? This is what the government is asking us to do … communications. Civil servants have been doing the same old thing for years.

So for me personally I want to learn. You must learn … continue learning. That’s why I am learning from you (the media).

Local authorities are still in the pits. Look at the Selangor state secretary and financial officer. They declared they would clear the backlog of land titles but until now habuk pun tarak!

They did move to clear the backlog. I challenge you. They moved but not 100% because of the strata titles. The problem was with the developers. They did not want to give (the titles) because they can collect management fees.

You said in Perak, the suspension of the state secretary was not valid because he is a federal officer. What about incompetent federal staff at state level?

The mentri besar should talk to me. Then I will take action.

The other concern is the Public Complaints Bureau (BPA). Look how long it takes to respond and solve problems. BPA takes two days to reply to email. Shouldn’t BPA move out of Putrajaya to be close to the people? In England, the citizen’s advisory bureau is always near a public transport hub to make it easy for the public. How many people can come to Putrajaya?

I normally answer emails within a day. I also realise that I cannot have a BPA in every area. Do you know we have a BPA in the chief secretary’s office? In the Public Services Department (PSD) and in every agency? You must treat complaints as a gift and if you do that, then each of us is a BPA.

BPA has no executive power, only persuasion. So when you send a complaint to me, I become the BPA. So right now, all of you must have a strong BPA unit in your ministry because if anyone complains about you, you must have at least the No. 2 attending to it.

Why do you need BPA at all? Why do we need this middleman to take and pass on complaints when each agency already has a public relations unit?

I agree with you. This must be looked at as phasing ourselves out. One day we will not need it, but it’s a work in progress. Just like how the MACC (Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) has now replaced the ACA (Anti-Corruption Agency).

Well the MACC is another story …

(Laughs) OK… That’s why I told the BPA you don’t wait for people to complain, you ARE the complainant! You go out and find out the problems. Having said that, the departments must regulate themselves too.

Should BPA be the KPI authority?

Why not? I think they can have a role there.

But they don’t have the executive powers. Might as well close BPA and ask everyone to cc to you. If anyone were to cc a complaint to BPA, will the agencies move as fast as they would if the mail was cc to you?

They must! It’s a work in progress and I am drumming this into the service!

If you are going to do it for publicity then it’s wrong, you must be sincere in ensuring that the service is improved. BPA now acts as a post box.

Yes, that’s why we need enforcement (and implementation). To me it’s very important that we tweak the system and compel the agencies to take feedback from BPA seriously. I will see to it.
Let’s talk about the controversy surrounding government scholarships.

The problem is we have 10,000 people who want to do medicine and everyone wants to do it in Ireland. And Ireland does not cater to just Malaysians! So you have 10,000 students applying for 2,000 places.

How does the PSD decide who gets what?

We decided in our infinite wisdom, to have four categories – brilliant students 10%; race quota 60%; East Malaysian students 10% and poor families 10%.
In Sarawak for instance, the boy living along the Rajang River may not have even seen a car but he scores 7A1s. Yet, the quality of his As may not be as good as the other 20,000 who scored straight As.

Also, some schools limit the number of subjects. There’s this student who scored nine A1s. He gets 100% – full marks for all the papers. A student from another school is allowed to sit for 20 subjects; he gets 20A1s but all 90% plus marks. So who’s better?

This student who got 9A1s wants to do medicine just as the student who got 20A1s … so who gets to go? We look at the marks!

When you have these shouldn’t your co-curriculum be counted?

Yes! That’s why we have co-curriculum and the interview. And the panellists are from a wide spectrum of society from various (ethnic) and professional backgrounds.

If I represented the country in sports like Nicol David, shouldn’t I be given priority for a scholarship?

Of course! … but provided you fulfil the minimum requirements. In Sabah, Sarawak, you must have a minimum of A2. So you cannot begrudge these people who get scholarships. Results lousy … ya, but he’s from Sarawak! He’s from a poor family!

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