Good governance: Role of public servants
GOOD governance is now a much talked about topic. UNDP, the World Bank, or other bilateral and multilateral donors, are concerned about lack of good governance in Bangladesh and have suggested measures for its improvement. There are also institutions which offer course studies in good governance. These facilities were not there during our time. I got the first lesson on good governance from my father when I went to Barisal to meet him to take his blessings before joining the Civil Service in 1952. While traveling in a rickshaw to the Barisal Steamer Ghat, he told me: "You are entering into a new phase of your life and you should always remember that honesty is the best policy. Never compromise on honesty."
This is the cardinal principle of good governance. A dishonest civil servant is a serious impediment to good governance. The second lesson on good governance was from Chief Justice Shahabuddin, who was the Chief Justice of the High Court of East Pakistan in 1954. I and a few colleagues were under settlement training in Sylhet when Justice Shahabuddin went on a visit there and met us in his railway saloon. He said: "During the course of your career, you will hold positions where you will find that the laws, rules and regulations have given you enormous power and authority. But please always remember that this power and authority given to you are not for 'glorifying' you or to make you 'self-important,' but to enable you to discharge your responsibility and obligation to the society in a responsible and just manner."
It is difficult to find an all-inclusive definition of good governance. In a recent article published in The Daily Star, the writer defined good governance as a cross-cutting issue. To him it meant effective parliamentary process, sound law and order, improved legal and judicial system, pro-people public service and a corruption-free society. The last two ingredients of good governance directly apply to the civil servants. Each one of us is an agent of good governance and each one of us can make enormous contribution to good governance by remaining incorruptible and maintaining a pro-people approach in the discharge of our duties and responsibilities. This will not cost us or the exchequer anything but would bring laurels both for us as well as for the government we serve.
Way back in 1952, when I decided to sit for the Central Superior Service of Pakistan, I had to deposit Rs.50 into the government exchequer as the examination fee. I was in Chittagong where the treasury was located on the top of the hill and the Imperial Bank of India where the money had to be deposited was at the bottom. I had to go up and down the hill at least twice to get the chalan approved, deposit the money and get a receipt. Since I was young I did not mind this trouble but I wondered how an old man would be able to perform this feat only to deposit Rs.50 in to the government treasury.
In 1963, I was appointed Joint Secretary, Finance, and one of my responsibilities was to look after the treasury work. This I considered an opportunity to probe into the procedure prescribed for depositing money into the government exchequer. Mr. Hafizur Rahman was the finance minister and I requested him to accompany me to Dhaka Treasury located in the old city. He readily agreed. On way to the treasury, I explained to the minister the purpose of the visit, which was to see first hand whether the elaborate steps prescribed for depositing money into government treasury could be shortened and, if so, take an on the spot decision. As far as I remember, we could eliminate at least one of the stages which did not at all affect the proper accounting of the deposit.
While I was a student, I was suffering from a rare eye disease which needed immediate surgery. The procedure for getting admitted as an indoor patient in the Dhaka Medical College Hospital was quite elaborate. I started with a doctor in the 'outdoor' and it took me about one week to reach 'indoor' of the hospital and meet the professor of ophthalmology who finally operated on my eye. Even at that time it appeared to me that the procedure was much too cumbersome and caused unnecessary harassment to the patients. It so happened that in 1966, I became the Secretary Department of Health and I took time to visit the Dhaka Medical College Hospital and, accompanied by the superintendent, a colonel from the army, went through the procedure for admission step by step.
The point I am trying to emphasise is that in these two instances, as well as in a few other similar cases, my objective was to reduce the hardship and harassment to the public at the hands of government functionaries. This I feel should be the motto of every government servant. We should remember that we are all public servants and that all our decisions and actions should be directed to serve public interest only. If each one of us can emulate this principle and strictly follow this code of conduct, we will be making our solid contribution to good governance and to the building up of a prosperous Bangladesh.
The writer is the first Finance Secretary of Bangladesh.