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27 June 2009
The Star
By P. Gunasegaram, Errol Oh and Tee Lin Say

StarBizWeek talks to Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan about how the civil service can lift Malaysia’s competitiveness.

StarBizWeek: What are the key messages you are getting from your customers?
Sidek: We have to listen more and respond fast, not in weeks or months, but in a matter of days. Two weeks ago, there was a reader’s letter in The Star about how she couldn’t renew her passport at the Immigration Department in Damansara Heights – on a Saturday, mind you – because the system was down. She was told to go to the Wangsa Maju branch the next day, a Sunday.

That means that the officers worked on a Sunday. That the system was down was not their fault. Can you imagine civil servants working on Sunday? More and more civil servants are now like that.

Don’t you think there are difference in service levels in different departments? There are still a lot of complaints about, say, the land office.
Sure, in every area, there will be some who are good and some who are lousy. In the National Registration Department, there will be some counters that are lousy. Our challenge is to maintain that consistency. We want to McDonaldlise the culture. Whether its in Subang Jaya or PJ, the level of service has to be the same. That is the challenge. I think we’re getting there.

We benchmark ourselves against the best. In passports, for instance, do you know who people now benchmark against? Malaysia!

In terms of processing the passports?
Yes, and even in terms of clearance at the airports. We’re better than the Newark and JFK airports. So this is what we are doing now – benchmarking against the best. We have already done this in some areas, but not on a full scale yet.

Another thing we need to be doing is get feedback – immediate and publicised. Assessment of services is something we are planning to do. When you go to the counter at the Immigration Department, for example, you press a button to rate the officer, whether its excellent, average or poor. This encourages good behaviour and suppresses the bad behaviour. Civil servants want to be rated well. And how are you rated well? By doing a good job.

How do you improve public service delivery by changing structures and systems?
I’ll use a golf analogy. If I were a caddy and I want to be rated as excellent, what do I have to do? All that the player wants is for the ball to go into the hole. How can the caddy help ensure that? One, the caddy must clean the ball. Two, the caddy must know the lines well. He must learn that.

Therefore, I must make sure that the systems and processes are right. For licensing, for example, how do I make sure that the person gets the licence fast? How do I make sure that what used to take three years to complete now takes three hours? Do you remember people having to queue up at the Immigration Department just to get their queue numbers to apply for passports. Now it takes only three hours. So if you (as a department head) want to be rated well, you have to re-engineer the process.

We used to have 10 people checking things in a single process. Does it really matter whether it’s three or 10 people? So basically, it’s about trusting people. If you always need to supervise your secretary-general or deputy secretary-general, or even your accountant, then its going to be very hard to do your job.

So the drive must come from the officers?
Yes, it is about teaching character. If you have a good officer, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in MITI (International Trade and Industry Ministry) or the Land Office. If he’s responsive to queries, does it fast and treat others the way he likes to be treated, what else do you want?

You say it’s very hard to do certain things because it’s hard to change people. So, it’s about people and putting them in the right places. Have you managed to change some of these things, and how long will it take for you to do this?
For the Government, it’s basically about getting the best people into the system at the point of recruitment. Therefore, we make sure that the people who join the civil service have that sort of attitude. Two, it is about training. Skills are very important, but it is the attitude that will be more important. Third, you must have very good on-the-job training.

Are you happy with the people you are getting, say at the lowest levels, or do you need people in the middle and upper levels to strengthen them?
I think we have to work with what we’re given. It’s about changing attitudes. We have been able to do that. Now we receive emails, and our people respond within 10 minutes. And this is not only for the high-level people. That is why attitude is most important. You can learn skills but not attitude.

So you feel that the attitude of the civil servant is changing?
Yes, definitely. I have no hesitation in saying that. But in the 1.2 million civil servants, sure, there are some who are lousy.

You say the public sector remuneration is not the best. So what are the incentives for the civil servants to work harder to improve public service delivery?
When you join the public service, you may not appreciate it, but after spending 35 years like I have, you’ll see that it’s all about the service. Besides, it’s not like the government is making you starve.

There have always been more Malays in the public service? Should this be addressed?
Yes, there have been more Malays all this while. Yes, this needs to be addressed. How? Well through getting more people to apply. I have addressed this a couple of times already. I have spoken with all the vernacular papers. I have also spoken with the community leaders.

Why do you think people are not applying? Is it because the non-Malays believe their prospects will not be so good?
If you are talking about perception, please help me address that with the public. When I joined the civil service in 1974, I had 10 Malay housemates. Some of us had received degrees with honours, but none of us had first-class or second-class upper honours. I got second-class lower.

Some of my housemates got general degrees and couldn’t join the government. So, the best Malay brains joined the government. Those who got general degrees joined the banks and the MNCs (multinational corporations). My Chinese friends who had done well (in university), joined their fathers’ companies or the MNCs, or started their own businesses.

The not-so-clever ones joined the government. So when there are so many Malays in civil service – and the best ones at that – who joined the government, who gets promoted? The brainy Malays, of course.

So basically are you happy with our public service delivery system?
I’m not happy. If I’m happy, there will be no room for improvement.

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