Gov't fails to cut staff costs
by Tran Quynh Hoa
Getting a permanent position in a State agency has long been the dream of many white-collar Vietnamese workers because of the job stability it affords.
"It means you will never be fired once you are able to put your feet in the system," said a 38-year-old friend of mine, who has decided to join a ministry after working for several big foreign-owned and private companies.
"It very much guarantees a secure job with social benefits when you are older and no longer able to work hard," he said.
Many professionals are attracted to the laid-back atmosphere in State agencies, particularly if they have a family.
Public workers can often be seen chatting away in a coffee shop near their office during work hours. And if you phone a district's Government office at 8am or 4pm you can expect your call to go unanswered.
Yet, State employees often complain about their poor salaries.
The latest pay rise, applicable from this month, increases the basic rate for public workers by more than 20 per cent. However, it is still barely enough to make ends meet, which some argue encourages corruption.
The latest pay rise lifts the minimum monthly wage from VND850,000 (US$40) to VND1,050,000 ($50), but that still only buys 30 bowls of pho (noodle soup) in central Ha Noi or HCM City.
One wonders how the State can possibly hope to attract talented staff on such pitiful wages.
Yet, a large chunk of the State budget goes on paying public officials because of the shear size of the civil service.
Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Nguyen Duy Thang said about 40 per cent of the State budget was spent on State employees' salaries – a significant figure when one considers just 20 per cent goes on education and 25 per cent on healthcare.
Meanwhile, an official in the Home Affairs Ministry's Administrative Reform Department said just 30 per cent of public workers worked at an "acceptable level", which suggest the remaining 70 per cent were useless.
Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Tran Anh Tuan admitted that the majority of State employees were of "poor quality" whereas they needed to be among the "elite".
The problem is, however, not unique to Viet Nam. Hitting the headlines in British newspapers over the past few days have been government plans to grade public officials on ability and to sack underperforming civil servants.
Steve Hilton, British Prime Minister David Cameron's former director of implementation, told his boss that the civil service could function effectively with a 90 per cent cut in staff numbers.
One Downing Street source told the DailyTelegraph: "It turned out that 4,000 mandarins could run the whole [British] empire, which rather puts today's staffing into perspective".
The situation in the UK is to some extent similar to Viet Nam but how the two governments approach the problems differs markedly.
The number of the civil servants in Britain has decreased to its lowest number since the Second World War, according to the Cabinet Office as the result of previous efficiency drives. There are now 434,000 civil servants, compared to more than 500,000 in May 2010.
Viet Nam, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction despite the Goverment's publicly announced move in 2007 to reduce the number of permanent civil servant positions and to make the Government system more effective and efficient.
Four years after the policy took effect, 54,220 public workers were sacked, according to the Home Affairs Ministry. However, at the same time, the number of permanent administrative posts increased by about a quarter. There are now about 260,000 public workers on permanent contracts nationwide, compared to more than 200,000 in 2000.
And the number of permanent jobs is expected to rise after Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung announced last week on the Government's website that he planned to increase the number of permanent staff to nearly 282,000 this year.
The decision was made only a few weeks after Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc held a meeting to speed up the implementation of the Government's efficiency drive in 2007 and cut the number of public officials in the country.
As long as the Government is inconsistent on this issue, lazy public officials will be the beneficiaries. They will continue to enjoy their privileged work hours (coming late and leaving early) and conduct private business in work time (while drinking coffee in a cafe). — VNS