Students, who are supposed to be asking questions, do everything they are told. Public workers, who are supposed to be doing something, ask every question imaginable without doing anything.
That was my American friend’s conclusion after several years working in Vietnam, as he calls it “a strange country.”
Although what he said might be exaggerated, I cannot help but sympathize with his opinion, especially the latter half. I have worked frequently with governmental administration at the provincial level. Public workers in Vietnam find the need to “seek approval” for anything outside of textbook norms, which is more than half the cases they work on.
After so many years spent waiting for such approvals, I usually take matters into my own hands, doing extra research on my own to suggest similar precedents in other provinces to whichever I am working on, just so that these public workers can simply get their approvals without having to do the mental labor. But in the last few years, even this strategy no longer seems to work.
“Now, we cannot do that anymore. Even when there are precedents, the other provinces might be doing things incorrectly. We never know,” a public sector worker told me when I applied for a construction project. “I would need to file a clarification request to the ministries to ask for approval first.”
Every low-level government worker asks for approval from the higher levels, and so every aspect of administrative work is delayed. Corporate workers like us, who usually rely on bank-financed loans for businesses, have to spend too much time waiting for approval, not knowing when we can proceed, while bank interest stacks up day by day, greatly reducing our profitability, and in the worse cases, pushes us into financial loss before we can even start work.
Eventually, the chorus becomes mind-numbingly familiar.
“We need to wait for approval,” they all say.
To put things into perspective, in 2022, HCMC authorities submitted over 580 documents to the Ministry of Planning and Investment for approvals, averaging approximately two documents a single working day, although most of them are “within the local department’s jurisdiction,” according to Minister Nguyen Chi Dung.
There are two reasons for this issue. First, public workers are afraid of making mistakes, especially amid the nation’s anti-corruption drive. They are afraid of taking responsibility for anything. Second, the government has conflicting rules and regulations on many matters. Some issues have different laws mandating different directions, some have laws with vague mandates, which can be interpreted differently, while many issues fall into legal gray areas.
I have myself have to wait for weeks, months, and years for decisions to be made. I have read stacks of governmental documents supposed to be providing an “approved” course of action, but are actually just reciting legal articles without any meaningful answer.
According to Vietnamese corporate statistics in the first quarter of 2023, for the first time, there were more companies closing than opening.
The corporates that are surviving only barely manage to do so, with mounting pressures both from inside and outside Vietnam. If the administrative hindrances cannot be tackled in time, it could be the final knock-out blow for already struggling corporates.
It’s time that senior government leaders take a long hard look at the current administrative blockade, and find some measures to ease the mounting pressures that corporates in Vietnam are experiencing.
*Nguyen Hoang Nam is the general director of the social housing development firm G-Home.