Toward a more professional and ethical civil service in Nepal

Nepal flag overlaid on interlocking cogs representing core values ethics honesty impartiality
Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling
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This is one in a series of blogs authored by researchers supported by the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence (GI-ACE) programme. The overarching objective of the GI-ACE programme is to support world-class multidisciplinary research to inform the development of more effective policies and interventions that will help reduce corruption in developing countries and address its negative impact on people’s lives.

To achieve this objective, GI-ACE produces new and operationally relevant evidence on tackling corruption, with a focus on ensuring that the research outputs support more effective, evidence-based anti-corruption initiatives by the Department for International Development (DFID) and other practitioner partners in DFID-priority countries and beyond.

Supported research focuses on innovative and practice-oriented projects, covering three priority areas: (1) Addressing the international architecture that supports corrupt exchanges; (2) Promoting integrity systems in the public and private sectors; and (3) Tackling corruption at subnational and sectoral levels.

Learn more about Meyer-Sahling’s GI-ACE research project…

Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling, University of Nottingham
Christian Schuster, University College London
Kim Sass Mikkelsen, Roskilde University
Shree Krishna Shrestha, Tribhuvan University

Effective governance is essential for economic development. Civil servants that are motivated to work hard, serve the public interest, and refrain from engaging in corruption are the cornerstone of effective governance. Yet, even if it is widely accepted that the civil service is a critical area of public sector reform, we lack robust evidence on how to build effective civil services in developing countries.

Nepal is no exception – it is one of the poorest countries in South Asia and has a legacy of political conflict. Over two decades, Nepal has continuously experimented with civil service and anti-corruption reforms. However, the civil service remains marred by inefficiencies, political patronage, and nepotism, all of which diminish the capacity of the civil service to make an effective contribution to economic development.

In our Civil Service Reform and Anti-Corruption project during phase one of the Anti-Corruption Evidence programme, we conducted civil service surveys in ten countries in four developing regions. Our unique survey approach combined the experiences of staff engagement and staff satisfaction surveys that have become increasingly popular in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries during the last decade, with anti-corruption and civil service management surveys of public servants.1 With more than 23,000 respondents, our project generated the largest published cross-country survey ever conducted. The survey has enabled us to identify strengths and weaknesses and to better understand ‘what works in civil service management in developing countries’.

In Nepal, the survey was conducted in the autumn and winter of 2017-18 as a person-to-person survey, leading to nearly 1,300 responses from civil servants employed in central government ministries and their subordinated offices.

The survey showed that Nepali civil servants are satisfied with their job and committed to serving the public. However, the survey also revealed that levels of work motivation are relatively low in Nepal. Moreover, levels of integrity are low in the civil service – both in absolute terms and in comparison to other countries surveyed in the context of our global project.

When presenting civil servants with conflict-of-interest situations, merely 23 percent of the respondents in Nepal indicated that they were aware of the ethical dilemma to which they were exposed. Similarly, we asked civil servants how they would react if they were offered gifts or money in the context of their work. The data indicated that nearly 30 percent would accept offers of this kind.

Ethical awareness and the propensity to engage in unethical behaviour vary across institutions and groups of staff. For instance, civil servants in the Public Service Commission – as one might expect – are more aware of conflict-of-interest situations than in the average Nepali public administration institution. Moreover, it became evident that lower-ranking civil servants were more at risk of engaging in unethical behaviour than those in the higher ranks of the civil service.

The problems of work motivation and integrity in the civil service raise questions with regard to the management of civil servants. By asking civil servants about their experience with recruitment and career advancement, salaries, performance evaluation, job protection and ethics and integrity management, our survey provides initial answers:

  • In relation to recruitment, it showed that most civil servants had to pass a written examination and a personal interview before joining the civil service. However, the survey also revealed that both personal and political connections are important for getting a job in the civil service in Nepal, primarily at the lower-ranking level.
  • Similarly, career advancement in the Nepali civil service is formally largely based on seniority-based promotions and transfers within the civil service. Yet, when asking civil servants which factors help them most to move ahead in the civil service, the survey showed that 51 percent identified personal connections as important and 30 percent considered connections to political parties, politicians, or persons with political links as at least somewhat important for getting to a better job in the civil service in the future.
  • Our statistical analysis shows that the politicisation of civil service management has especially negative consequences for work motivation, public service motivation, and both the ethical awareness and behaviour of civil servants. Looking at mechanisms to reduce the potential for reliance on political connections in civil service management is hence essential for raising the levels of professionalism in the civil service of Nepal.

Our survey also found that there is considerable scope not only for upgrading the ethics and integrity management system, but also for investment in the ethics infrastructure of the civil service in Nepal. Our current project takes up the challenge of developing a state-of-the-art ethics training for civil servants in order to contribute to the ambition of building a more professional and ethical civil service in Nepal.

The civil service is regulated by the Civil Service Law of 1993, and a Code of Conduct provides further ethical guidance for civil servants. Most respondents of the civil service survey in Nepal widely acknowledge the existence of the Code of Conduct and indicate that they have read and understood it.

When conducting a statistical analysis of the survey data, we found that knowledge of the Code of Conduct and participation in ethics training – a mere 26 percent of civil servants indicated that they participated in ethics training at least once during their career – are not associated with greater ethical awareness and ethical behaviour. It hence appears that civil servants in Nepal simply receive too little, too rarely in terms of civil service ethics education.

One of the most promising initiatives is the development of a modern, state-of-the-art ethics training that enables the Government of Nepal to communicate the values of the civil service, enhance the understanding of the Code of Conduct among civil servants – including on how to resolve conflicts of interest – and enhance ethical skills, for instance on how to give voice to values in organizations.

Moreover, an ethics training programme that focuses on senior and higher-ranking civil servants provides a tool for the development of relevant leadership skills. In particular, officers who employ ethical leadership practices to lead by example, communicate ethical principles, and hold their subordinates to account for ethical behaviour will play a central role in strengthening the ethics and integrity management in Nepal.

1 OECD (2016), Engaging Public Employees for a High-Performing Civil Service, OECD Public Governance Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling
Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling
Professor of Political Science, University of Nottingham

Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling’s research concentrates on executive politics and the transformation of governance in Europe. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and was a Max Weber Fellow and a Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Meyer-Sahling has been the author of OECD-SIGMA Reports on civil service professionalisation in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Western Balkans.


Christian Schuster is an associate professor in public management in the School of Public Policy at the University College London. He studies how governments manage public servants, drawing on data from original surveys, interviews and field experiments with public servants.


Kim Sass Mikkelsen is an associate professor of public administration and politics in the Department of Social Science and Business at Roskilde University. His research focuses on public sector human resource management, government ethics, and social science research methods.


Shree Krishna Shrestha is an emeritus professor in the Department of Public Administration at Tribhuvan University.

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