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Leading reforms in Cambodia’s government

Council of Ministers meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. File Picture

This week, Khmer Times have run two editorials calling for accountability in the public sector and the empowerment of new generation of leadership. Our intention is to provide input to the Cambodian government in order to strengthen the public trust in state institutions.

Another issue of public interest is leadership transition within the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been a hot political discussion among observers and laypeople alike. There is speculation that Prime Minister Hun Sen would hand over premiership to his eldest son after the 2023 general election.

To clear the air, Mr Hun Sen has clarified that he would stay in power for another decade and the power transition can only take place after he steps down, of course with the condition that his political party wins the electoral contest.

Concerning the power transition to his eldest son, Mr Hun Maneth, who is the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, he said that it depends on the electoral process and not on him.

Although Mr Hun Sen could manage to stay in power in the next 10 years, it does not mean that the Cabinet Ministers will not be reshuffled. It would be a huge mistake if Mr Hun Sen does not take concrete steps to change his cabinet members based on meritocracy in addition to loyalty.

Underperformed ministers must be replaced if the CPP-led government wishes to strengthen its legitimacy and powerbase. The new bloods must be injected into the administration system in order to make a difference in the government.

The appointment and promotion should be made based on the commitment to spearheading reform or proven track record in leading change efforts in the government. The ministers should not be appointed based on their political connections and the recommendations of their patron(s).

It is time for the premier to out his heart, mind, soul and political will to have a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle that will enable him to realise his long-cherished goal of putting the country and cabinet on a sound footing.

To do this, the cabinet reshuffle must have appeal. The pull or “wow” factor and must be spiced up. In spite of the rise to prominence of a small number of youthful members in the cabinet, it is still however, still dominated by old dinosaurs.

In a democratic system, public interest watchdog groups and the media play a critical role in assessing the performance of each minister. The Cambodian taxpayers look for effective and efficient execution of the mission of each ministry and state agencies.

Before it is too late. Mr Prime Minister must start building a clean and smart government from this year. One of the key strategic interventions is to promote his cabinet members based on meritocracy. Technocrats should be further promoted or invited to serve in the public sector.

In Cambodia, there is a serious inflation of “Excellencies”. To build the future of Cambodia, it requires more competent technocrats because now Cambodia has too many politicians. Recently, few technocrats have been promoted to be advisers to the government; but the opportunities and power for the technocrats to make a difference remain limited.

Once the political will is there, the next step is to find ways and means to encourage and reward technocrats to serve in the public sector.  Much dead wood is reluctant and resistant to change as these people tend to cling on to power for their selfish personal interests – it is more about gaining material incentive rather than serving the country.

The public debates on leadership change in the government evolve around the questions of: “How much money do they need before they get retired?”; “What will they do after they get retired?” It seems that some of the ministers wish to work until their health does not allow them to do so.

It is time for Cambodian political leaders to step back and reflect. If the new generation of leadership is not given the opportunities to prove themselves to make a difference, the CPP will not be able to have new ideas and innovative solutions to resolve national problems in order to win the hearts and minds of the citizens whose inspirations and expectations are on the rise.

The demands for public sector leaders have changed significantly over the decade. In the future, the environment for the public sector leaders is getting more challenging. The leaders must know how to cut costs – especially by reducing corruption and unnecessary expenditure, how to meet the people’s expectations, how to increase productivity, how to use new technologies to leverage their work and how to attract talented people to work in their ministry or state agency.

As the national issues are becoming more cross-sectoral, the ministers must learn how to build networks and exert influence beyond the boundaries of their own hierarchy. They need competent people around them that they can trust and to nurture a culture that embraces diversity and new ideas.

The future generation of public sector leaders in Cambodia must at least have a reform mindset, embrace innovation and constantly adapt to changes. The old style of leadership based on patronage and money politics will not work.

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