Friday, April 30, 2004

Civil servants still high and mighty

A READER once wrote about how before the election, politicians are here, there and everywhere, easily available to everyone and anyone. But, post-election, the curtain comes down and barriers are set up where getting to see the Yang Berhormat is close to impossible.

Then, there is the Prime Minister's loud and clear message to all, including civil servants, reminding them of their basic function, which is to serve and to serve well.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is far from what has been defined and exhorted as the basic function of politicians and civil servants. While I have not had to deal with politicians, I have had to deal with civil servants and my letter focuses on them and my attempts thus far to access them.

Almost a year ago, I had to meet up with officials from the Ministry of Health on official matters. Typically, attempts to make appointments with the officials met with that deadpan question of "Ini daripada mana?", then "Nak jumpa berkenaan apa?" leaving you to hope that something positive would come out of it.

However, after all that, comes the equally deadpan reply "Datuk tiada di pejabat". The reply is about as close-ended as you can get, meaning that there is no suggestion of trying to set up a meeting date. When you ask for an appointment, you are asked to call back later "sebab buat masa ini, jadual Datuk nampak penuh" with meetings and trips.

I accepted the situation until a higher ranking officer from the same ministry, a close acquaintance of mine, heard of my experience. He apologised profusely, which was very nice, after which he asked me to write in explaining the issue that I wanted to discuss with ministry officials, and to come in to see him.

I wrote in the very next day, after which I tried to set up an appoint-ment. He only responded once to the letter by asking me for further de-tails, after which nothing happened either in the form of phone calls or responses whether verbal or written. As for trying to see him, I got the same responses and in effect what it meant was that I could only try to see him about three months down the road.

The secretary sounded the same as all the other secretaries. The situation was almost identical to that of the other officials whom I had tried to meet up with. The only difference was that I knew this official well and he had expressed almost with embarrassing willingness to meet up with me.

In effect, what it meant was that civil servants appear to have noth-ing else to do but get into meetings, and to travel, either outstation or overseas. So, how can they ever serve the public whose money puts them in the very office they occupy? That was a year ago, but today, even after the PM's clarion call for the public to be on their toes and the Chief Secretary's reminders to civil servants to remember their functions, I faced a similar problem.

This time it is the Home Affairs Ministry where the secretary reminded me that the ministry was undergoing restructuring, meaning they were busy and no one could presume to want to meet anybody among the work-laden civil servants there.

Then of course, the other question as to where I was from and what was the nature of my business that required an appointment. Realising that I had little chance of getting through the vetting of the secretary, I wrote in, stating my business and asking for an appointment.

I might add that the officer in question is also a close friend whom I would not presume to bother at home on an official business matter. And here I sit, languishing from a lack of response and just no hope of ever getting any response.

In conclusion, civil servants are just not serving the public. They cannot, judging from their very busy schedules and impossibly tight routines. We put them there, but their focus is on the trappings of the job which must be very important for them to be unable to meet us, the public, when needed.

If this had been the private sector, the company would have long gone under because the customer is always right. Customer satisfaction indices rule the day and companies in the private sector spend hours and lots of money agonising about maintaining a satisfactory customer satisfaction level. That is not so in the Government and this is the problem.

Petaling Jaya

NST:: 30/4/2004

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