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Gov't to improve civil service with ban on officials' daytime drinking

Update: April, 22/2013 - 10:47

The Ministry of Justice has recently put forward a new regulation banning all staff members and officials from drinking during work time. Violations, if serious, could lead to dismissal, according to Minister Ha Hung Cuong. Viet Nam News tried seeking more details of the new ruling from the Ministry but did not receive responses. Renwick Irvine, Governance Adviser, UK Department for International Development and a Vietnamese State employee shared their ideas.

Nguyen The Phuong, a State officer at the Son La City Management Board for Displacement and Resettlement

As a public servant, I agree that it's necessary to ban State employees from drinking alcoholic beverages during work hours. My office has also been constantly briefed on the necessity of not drinking at work. But it's part of the custom here for ethnic people in mountainous areas that a glass of alcohol starts every discussion. This has been a die-hard tradition for generations. But it's certainly necessary to limit drinking – at least during lunchtime. We are usually in close contact with guests from various places so this is very difficult. I think it depends on each office to provide its own enforcement rulings, but State employees should all behave in a way that upholds universal standards of decency.

Renwick Irvine, Governance Adviser, UK Department for International Development:

Are you surprised at the move by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to ban government workers from consuming alcoholic beverages during the workday?

The Ministry of Justice is responsible for overseeing an important part of the state machinery. In law, people need good, clear judgment. Drinking impairs this judgment. It is totally understandable that MoJ would want its staff to have better judgment.

I don't want to suggest that all officials are always drinking alcoholic beverages. This is not the case. But from what I observe, lunchtime drinking in particular is an issue in Viet Nam.

It is to some degree a cultural issue. For example, when you go on field trips or have official lunches, there is often alcohol served.

But culture evolves and changes. In the UK we have seen a significant change in the culture of drinking over the last few decades, both due to increased awareness of the health hazards of heavy drinking and the fact that it has become less socially acceptable to drink during the day.

How do you think the ban can be effectively implemented?

Whether an outright ban in Viet Nam will be effective will depend on a variety of issues. Sanctions are important - and whether they are enforced matters.

Take for example the change that took place when the Government decided to make the wearing of motorcycle helmets compulsory: initially people were skeptical that they could enforce it and change the culture, but with political will, they were able to. Now motorcyclists not wearing helmets are the exception rather than the rule.

The same could be true of drinking as well: the example that leaders set matters and change needs to come from the top. And the example of the UK shows that culture does change with relation to drinking.

It is widely recognised that drinking diminishes effectiveness at work. Few companies, international organisations or governments would condone drinking during working hours.

There are occasions when it is more acceptable than others. For example during farewell parties or Christmas lunches in the UK, it is perhaps more acceptable to have a drink.

We even have a special rule covering this, which stipulates that good behavior must be followed at all times and that people should avoid excessive drinking.

But on the whole, the trend for drinking during the daytime has diminished.

The minister of justice also states that violations can lead to dismissal. However, it's difficult to determine the seriousness of an individual violation. How do you think this can be done?

Sanctions that are enforced do work. They also act as a deterrent. If an official is unfit to perform his or her duty, there should be disciplinary sanctions. This would need to be judged by management.

For example, if staff return late to work, sleep in the afternoon or are incapable of performing the functions assigned to them, there should be action. Making an example of some people also helps set the tone. If people are seen getting away with things, the whole strategy will be undermined.

In my organisation, this would be dealt with by the managers, with a warning given usually in the first instance. Persistent flouting of the rules would not be tolerated. Having said that, I have never come across anyone who has been in this situation, so I find it hard to judge.

Viet Nam is trying to increase the effectiveness of its public administration system. Banning drinking is a small step. What else should we do to make sure that our public workers actually work?

Banning drinking is a good move. If we start increasing the expectations of the performance of public servants, there could be a positive impact on actual performance. What else could work? Well, basic things such as having clear job descriptions and performance goals, which can be measured and are managed.

Rewarding good performance has been proven to make a difference in some countries. This should feed into the promotion process, where the best, most capable people are promoted. In Viet Nam, we know and the data tells us that having connections matters to both recruitment and promotion. Making these processes more meritocratic and transparent could have a huge impact on the reform process.

Simplifying procedures has been proven to help. There is still some way to go for Viet Nam. The legal framework has too many grey areas, giving too much room for interpretation.

Finally, I would like to reemphasise that I think banning alcohol is a good first step of professionalising the civil service. But it is important to make this policy work and make it sustainable. This requires more than just good intentions. — VNS

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