OMAN: AIDE MEMOIRE 26 September 1990

            This is a brief summary of the findings of a reconnaissance mission to Oman undertaken September 16-26, 1990, by Courtney Nelson on behalf of the Management Development Programme of the UNDP. The report on this Mission, to be drafted shortly after leaving Oman, will suggest concrete strategies for the provision of UNDP assistance in dealing with the array of public management problems confronting the Government, and the Ministry of Civil Service in particular. 


Stone carving   Baalbek, Lebanon 1972

          Under the Terms of Reference for the Mission, the Government was specifically interested in an examination of the following issues:

(1)  the capabilities of the public sector in preparing and implementing long-term administrative reform policies,

(2)  civil service organization, conditions of service, and human resources development, and

(3)  research and training in public administration.

          Initial conversations, with H.E. the Minister of Civil Service and H.E. the Under Secretary of the Ministry, indicated that particular attention should be devoted to:

(a)  the organization of the Ministry of Civil Service (MCS),

(a)  the strategy of the Omanization program,

(a)  the organization and functions of the Institute of Public Administration, and

(a)  the process which might be followed for classifying positions in the Government.

          These concerns of the Government are closely interrelated, reflecting current perceptions of development priorities in Oman. After twenty years of very rapid economic growth and infrastructure development, the Government is devoting increasing attention to human resource development. For the first time, the Government is finding it difficult to place some Omanis educated at both secondary and university levels, although over half of the workforce is non‑Omani, reflecting a mismatch between educational achievements and the needs of the job market and other factors. Declining oil revenues, prior to the current crisis, signaled the need to replace expatriates in the work force and increase the efficiency of the public service.

          In recognition of the need for improved development and utilization of human resources, the Ministry of Civil Service was created in 1988, to supercede the Central Personnel Agency and to carry out training and administrative reform programs as a service to public agencies. The Ministry has broad powers and responsibilities for improving the performance of the public service but as yet relatively limited staff capability for achieving its goals. Several studies been made recommending desirable Ministry activities, but the Ministry is less unclear about what it should do than about how to accomplish its tasks with available staff resources.

          The report on this Mission, to be drafted shortly after leaving Oman, will suggest concrete strategies for the provision of UNDP assistance in dealing with the array of public management problems confronting the Government, and the Ministry of Civil Service in particular. The strategies are summarized below, keyed to the priority topics put forward by the Minister.

(a) Strategies for Strengthening the Ministry

          The Minister remarked, quite correctly, that the first task to accomplish in improving public management was to build the capacities of the Ministry of Civil Service itself.

          Public service agencies and ministries, set up to solve personnel and organizational problems of government, too often become part of the problem and not the solution. This happens when the control functions of the agency dominate the service functions. At that point, the other agencies of government begin to look for ways around the public service agency and avoid dealing with it whenever possible.

          At the present time, with very limited staff, both in numbers and in qualifications, the Ministry is in danger of letting control functions take over. For example, 22 staff members are engaged in auditing each hiring and promotion action to ensure they conform to civil service regulations. Many mistakes are found, which seems to justify the activity. It would be preferable, however, to invest in additional training of the personnel staff of other ministries, so auditing by the MCS could be done on a sampling basis. Audit department staff could be available to advise personnel departments in other ministries, and might help to train them. This would be a service approach rather than a control approach.

          In dealing with reorganization issues, my impression is that the control approach again dominates. MCS staff are concerned with checking to avoid duplication of functions and violations of regulations, which are control activities. MCS would like to be in a position to assist ministries to design reorganization plans, but in practice good organization plans must be build upon a thorough knowledge of the functions the organization is to perform, so ministries often prefer to design their own plans. They may turn to the IPA for assistance, because IPA has no control or approval responsibilities, but they are unlikely to turn to MCS unless MCS can provide expertise not available elsewhere.

          A UNDP/MDP project would contribute most usefully to the MCS, therefore, if it could strengthen the MCS ability to perform services which other ministries would find beneficial. These services could include methods of work simplification (as in the audit case), providing training that meets genuine needs, and bringing in improved management methodologies for upgrading existing systems. The report will provide examples of each of these types of service functions.

(b) Omanization

          The Government is rightly concerned that the vast investments made in human resource development in Oman and abroad are not resulting in as rapid a rate of replacement of expatriate skilled labor as would be desirable. MCS has conducted an extensive survey to determine the number of non‑Omanis employed in Government, their tasks, grades, and qualifications. Based on this information, MCS seeks to help ministries plan the replacement process and train Omanis for the posts.

          The goals of this campaign are commendable, but the process is likely to lead to unintended results. In many cases, given the low salaries available in their home countries, expatriate staff are willing to accept positions for which they may be somewhat over‑qualified. A person with a degree, for example, may be willing to work as a secretary if that is the best position open to him. When MCS produces a newly trained Omani candidate for the secretarial post, the employing ministry may object, saying that the work accomplished by the secretary far exceeds the rudimentary services the candidate can perform. Here again, MCS is likely to be perceived by its clients as a control organization rather than one producing desired services.

          It would be preferable if the drive to accelerate Omanization were to stress qualitative factors rather than quantitative. The standards of performance set in the next decade are likely to prevail in Oman for many years to come. This is the time period when Omanis will take over most posts, so it is very important that appropriate standards be set now, and that existing Omani staff be encouraged and enabled to improve their qualifications.

          The process of upgrading the quality of Government personnel and the systems of management they operate should begin, with MCS assistance, very high up. Many senior Omani executives have held positions of great responsibility although their formal qualifications are very limited. The most outstanding of this group who are under 45 years of age should given the opportunity to develop further their perspectives, analytical abilities, and knowledge of experience elsewhere by spending a year in a public policy program at a leading university abroad. This year would be a valuable investment in the further development of executives who have already demonstrated outstanding potential. The Mason Fellows program at Harvard University is an example of the opportunities available, but by no means the only one.

          MCS should, with IPA assistance, take a greater role in the selection, preparation and placement of civil servants sent for graduate studies abroad. The quality of each of these activities is critical to the value of the training received. At present candidates too often are not well prepared before they leave and are not enrolled in the best universities to which they could be admitted. This produces lower returns on training investments than are available. Well-selected graduate programs abroad could be so valuable to the country that the present system of sending new people abroad only after someone already abroad returns should be reconsidered. Methodologies for improving selection, preparation and placement, which could be provided through a UNDP/MDP project, will be discussed in more detail in the report.

          Other measures for improving the quality of the Omanization process could include arranging for after‑hours courses at the University and at technical training institutes, and devising incentives systems to reward Omanis who take advantage of voluntary training opportunities. It should be possible, for example, for someone who joined the civil service after secondary school to earn a BA through attending afternoon or evening courses over a number of years. Those who make the effort to gain advanced qualifications should be suitably rewarded through promotions, salary adjustments or allowances. The experience of other nations in instituting incentives schemes could be made available through UNDP/MDP.

(c) Institute of Public Administration

          The IPA currently offers a limited range of training courses, which may shortly be augmented by the initiation of a two-year course for new entrants to the civil service. There is also a need for more advanced courses, such as information and communications skills, analytical and quantitative skills, and financial management, but the specific content of middle management courses such as these should be determined in consultation with the client ministries.

          At present, the development of the professional skills of Omani staff of the IPA is in the early stages and needs to be accelerated and improved through more attention to quality. Staff being sent abroad for study should be selected on the basis of academic potential rather than seniority, and that can be determined initially by staging a competition for admission to the best universities abroad. In time, selection instruments in the Arabic language should be developed, as was done in Indonesia.

          The maturation of the IPA could also be accelerated by pairing it with a similar institution abroad. The arrangement could involve staff exchanges and training programs, collaborative research on administrative problems, and joint consultancies on problems of client ministries.

          The development of the IPA should be done parallel with the development of the MCS so that IPA activities support and complement the work of the Ministry. For example, MCS may undertake to assist the Development Council in upgrading the project appraisal system used throughout the Government. This could involve identifying a source of improved methodology abroad, sending one member of professional staff from the IPA and one from the Development Council for training in the methodology, adapting the methodology to the needs of the Development Council, and organizing training courses at the IPA for staff from all the ministries expected to use the improved methodology. Consultants from the source institution abroad could assist in adapting the methodology to Omanís needs and help to organize the first course at the IPA.

          In this way, the MCS and IPA would provide a service to the Development Council and other ministries by helping to upgrade their methods of project appraisal and train staff in its use. Similar services could be provided to upgrade a wide variety of systems such as public sector budgeting, agricultural planning, hospital management, public enterprise management, and educational policy analysis. The contribution of MCS, with UNDP/MDP assistance, in identifying appropriate sources of advanced methodologies, adapting them to the needs and circumstances of Oman, and training civil servants in their use, would make the Ministry a powerful force for management development in the country. The IPA would also gain stature by participating in the process.

          Another contribution the IPA could make by is the development of a pre‑departure course for preparing graduate school candidates. By upgrading language, mathematical and analytical skills here, it will become possible for Omani candidates to gain admission to more rigorous educational institutions abroad than has generally been the case in the past. (PDO already has a pre-departure preparation course that could be a model for IPA, but I was unable to see it.)

(d) Position Classification

          Position classification is a fairly routine but essential step in the further professionalization of the Omani civil service. It is a building block for improving recruitment, performance evaluation, and promotion systems, and for facilitating interministerial mobility.

          It seems to me unlikely, however, that the UNDP/MDP would have a comparative advantage in assisting the Government in this matter. Position classification is largely a matter of working out the system to be employed, organizing people from the personnel sections of the various ministries and training them as job analysts, setting timetables for accomplishment of the process, and monitoring progress. The MCS should not itself undertake to do the classification in other ministries; that would take forever. It should organize and supervise the effort, and get it done in the shortest possible time. External expertise, beyond that available from advisors already employed by the Ministry, should not be required.       


          To summarize the conclusions of this Mission, I recommend that the Government concentrate on improving the quality of the analytical and management systems it uses, and the qualifications of the Omanis it employs. This will have more healthy results for Oman in the long run than placing undue stress just now on the replacement of expatriates in the shortest possible time.

          If emphasis is to be placed on quality considerations, the UNDP/MDP could assist the MCS and IPA in gaining access to advanced systems and in improving the overseas and domestic training process for public servants.

          The UNDP/MDP project to be proposed would not provide consultants or advisors to do the work. It would instead provide consultants to guide working groups or task forces of Omanis on the accomplishment of their tasks, and to monitor progress. It would not seek to import foreign models and plug them in in Oman. It would, instead, work with Omanis to adapt foreign experience to the needs and conditions of Oman and then help train Omanis in utilizing the resulting methodologies. The operational dynamics of the proposal will be elaborated in the final report.

          If the Government in interested in pursuing further the strategies suggested in this Aide-Memoire, the next step could be the visit of a team of specialists to work with designated Omani officials to produce project proposals for the Governmentís consideration. The UNDP/MDP team could include people with experience in development management, overseas training systems, institutional pairing arrangements, and one or two of the management systems selected by the Government for initial attention (such as project appraisal). The Omani officials might be selected from the Ministry and the IPA, plus whatever client ministry would be appropriate to the system chosen for initial attention.

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