In Vietnam: Grilling Public Officials– A Good Thing
November 28, 2007
On November 21st, the 493-member National Assembly of Vietnam (NA) finished its second session. Elected in May 2007 for a term of five years, these NA deputies meet twice a year for about 30 days to review the country’s legislative agenda and the government’s work.
Recently, a question and answer component was introduced into these NA sessions, which is now also broadcast on television and radio and reported widely in news outlets across the country. For the first time, Vietnamese citizens have been able to directly see and hear high-level government officials explain the visions they hold for the country’s development in their areas of responsibility and defend their agencies’ records. These officials are no longer simply names on paper; they are real people ripe for public judgment on their capacity to answer questions without being evasive, their thoughtful knowledge of the issues’ impact on citizens, and their readiness to offer meaningful solutions.
These public Q & A’s are relatively short (this last one lasted two and a half days) and their outcomes are not binding, so it’s debatable how much real impact they may have. But it must be noted, such public grilling of officials is a wholly new practice in Vietnam and public opinion is emerging as a force in the NA, compelling government to respond to public concerns.
At the most recent session, the Standing Deputy Prime Minister and seven ministers from the Ministries of Education and Training, Finance, Agriculture and Rural Development, Industry and Trade, Health, Transportation, and Interior were up for questioning. The fact that the ministers themselves submitted to the grilling and did not delegate it to their deputies says a lot.
The Q& A’s also present a map of the public’s most pressing concerns of the day. Today, one of the hottest topics in Vietnam is quality of education. Minister of Education Nguyen Thien Nhan caused an uproar coming into office this year when he pushed to tighten standards for the nation-wide high school graduation exam. The resulting drop in graduation rates in many provinces was big news, but interestingly, most teachers, parents, and the public responded to the outcome as a realistic assessment of state of Vietnam’s education system. The urgent sense of a need for substantial education reform is palpable, and the country’s post-WTO competitiveness is deemed at risk. It was therefore not surprising that at this Q&A there was much interest in asking the Minister of Education about such issues as textbook quality, standards for originality in doctoral theses, and concerns over the continuing need to privatize education funding.
For Minister of Finance Vu Van Ninh, there was a spate of questions on the government’s strategy in responding to rising consumer prices, the slow implementation of basic infrastructure projects, and the heavy fees inflicted on farmers. There were aggressive questions regarding the failure of Project 112, a national e-government effort that was shut down by the Prime Minister when it became clear that funds were misused. People were very unhappy with the Minister’s weak response that the Ministry of Finance doesn’t monitor the quality of the project but only acts according to the legal terms of the specific contract. The Vietnamese media covered the story widely.
For Minister of Transportation Ho Nghia Dung, the litany of questions reflected concerns with critical road construction affecting the provinces, and the overall lag in infrastructure to meet rising transportation needs. For the Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang, questions ranged from the country’s electricity capacity to trade promotion to the export of oil. Minister of Health Nguyen Quoc Trieu’s frank responses to questions gained him applause, although he was taken to task for Vietnam’s low quality of healthcare service. Thornier questions were raised for Minister of Interior Tran Van Tuan, with many questions focusing on the decline of quality of civil servants. Issues raised include the lack of clear criteria for selection and promotion of civil servants, the corrupt practice of buying government positions, and whether capable civil servants who are not Party members can reach leadership positions.
These Q & A’s provide a glimpse into the workings of the NA and the government, and the uneven relationship between them. In recent years, the NA has been asserting its legislative, monitoring, and representation roles, and this public Q & A is one of the few ways the NA can do so. But most NA deputies who facilitate the questions are not full time, and the body only meets twice a year, so the deputies themselves also need to gain experience in how they can question government officials most effectively. Nevertheless, if these sessions ” however unruly or scattered — serve to improve transparency and accountability and perhaps even lead to improved governance, then they are certainly worthwhile.
These Q & A’s are happening against the backdrop of a Vietnam that is adapting to rapid economic growth and social change Le Quang Binh, the head of the NA Committee on National Defense and Security, reflected on the Q & A session, saying, “We are moving to clarify roles and responsibilities so that a task is done by only one agency, with an individual responsible. But right now since one task is being done by many agencies, it is difficult for us to say that a specific minister is responsible. This time, I see that there is something new; many ministers made promises which previously they did not do. But I do not know to what extent those promises will be implemented [although] those promises reflect accountability, and that is a good thing.”
Kim Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Vietnam.
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