Sunday, June 17, 2012

“Experts” for top bureaucracy
"As I See It " Column
The Independent
15 June 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

The Government, it seems, is seriously considering appointing “experts” to “fix” the top bureaucracy.  Perhaps this is a genuine acknowledgement of the government that that with the civil bureaucracy, it has a big problem. If the need is an excuse to place party loyalists in key positions of the civil bureaucracy as some suspect it is, then “fixing” the top bureaucracy with “experts” would destroy a civil bureaucracy that is not far from it due to over politicization. 

The Minister for Agriculture explained the thinking of the government while giving her view on the fixing the top bureaucracy with “experts”.  She said that all over the world, governments bring into their top level of bureaucracy experts from various fields. She did not see any reason why Bangladesh should not follow this well established practice for the benefit of our civil bureaucracy. 

Bureaucrats in top positions have already voiced their opposition to the proposed reform of the top bureaucracy. They feel that this would politicize the bureaucracy further. Their main concern however is that it would take away a considerable amount of their power and authority to give to these “experts”. They feel that as these experts would be handpicked by the political leaders of the government, they would bring with their “expert” knowledge, political connections that would make the career bureaucrats lose a lot of their clout and power. Needless to say, they would also take away many of the top posts of the civil bureaucracy. 

The Minister for Agriculture however ruled out the concern that the proposed system would place in top positions, party loyalists.  She said that at  present , the government spends a huge amount of money employing consultants from home and abroad who are given responsibility to assist the civil bureaucracy. She feels it would be logical to give these consultants authority and incorporate them as a part of the top bureaucracy. 

Unfortunately, the Minister, her excellent political leadership notwithstanding, has glossed over a lot of very important issues critical to the civil bureaucracy in Bangladesh without showing much insight. Our civil bureaucracy is based on legal foundations that have been inherited from the British. With small changes here and there, all civil bureaucracies in South Asia are patterned the same way. The civil bureaucracies of South Asia are career services where lateral entry at different levels is the rare exception and definitely not the norm.  

In fact, the civil bureaucracy in next door India is so strong that the political leadership has never dared to even suggest putting these “experts” in leadership role in any of its existing Ministries. The Minister’s view that if consultants can be given responsibility, they can also be given authority and placed at top level of the bureaucracy is dangerous to the way our civil bureaucracy is based. Our top bureaucrats share authority grudgingly even with political leaders. To expect them to share authority with these “experts” would be expecting something that simply would not happen unless imposed by force. 

The Minister’s belief that bringing “experts” would not politicize the civil bureaucracy is a serious error. Given the nature of administration that the government has run in the last 3 years, political considerations have been primary in promoting bureaucrats and placing them in important positions. Recently a High Court Judge has issued a ruling upon the government to provide the Court with a list of officers who are OSDs, a group of officers who are not placed in bureaucratic posts mainly because of their political leanings. 

The Judge was forced to issue the order because under this government, the largest number ever has been made OSDs. In fact, in the present civil bureaucracy, not one bureaucrat has been given a post of Secretary whose leanings are not clearly with the ruling party. Thus, the bureaucracy is already extremely politicized. The “experts” would only politicize the bureaucracy further by dividing it into camps out to prove which is more loyal to the ruling party. 

The idea of placing “experts” in top positions has perhaps come from the “spoils system” in USA. The general perception in Bangladesh, in fact a misperception, is that in the US , when a new administration comes to office, it places in senior positions those from the party who have helped it win the election under the principle “to the victor belongs the spois”. The origin of this system called the “spoils system” dates to the times of President Andrew Jackson (1828-1836) who appointed almost a fifth of federal posts from party loyalists. Subsequently, through extensive civil service reforms, the “spoils system” has been streamlined because it brought with it extreme corruption and inefficiency. 

 Today, the President’s power to appoint individuals to federal posts under the so-called spoils system has been subjected to a legal framework where senior appointees must receive congressional approval. What is more significant is that the US spoils system is based on other legal foundations that ensure that whoever comes to the administration serve the government and not the party. Such appointments are nowhere as extensive as it was in the times of President Jefferson or President Ulysses Grant in whose term it got a really bad name. In Washington today, federal government employees are not allowed to keep even pictures of their political leaders in their place of work during election time under the Hatch Act. They are by law also prohibited from showing overt preferences for any political party. 

The posts the new administration gives today under the so-called spoils system are given to run the government and not for the interest of the party in power. In addition to legal prohibitions to bringing partisanship to the administration, there are ethical standards that these countries have achieved over decades of development. We are just nowhere to achieving the legal and ethical framework required even to think of replicating the system let alone achieving any   positive results,  should we at some stage go ahead and employ “experts”. 

Sadly, our reformers are not focusing where they should; that aggressive politicizing of the civil bureaucracy by successive governments has taken away any sense of dynamism among the bureaucrats. Like the parliament that now is the meeting place of ruling party lawmakers; the civil bureaucracy is a much larger institution of ruling party supporters and activists. The neutrality that is still the legal basis of our civil bureaucracy has been  destroyed leading those who have no known connections with the ruling party to either join the OSD club or just keep their hands off from taking responsibility lest what they do are construed as support for  the opposition. 

The government said it would hold views with stake holders before employing “experts” to fix the top bureaucracy.  Those in service who are supporters of the government have already opposed the idea of “experts”.  Those in the civil bureaucracy who are languishing as OSDs would of course dismiss the so-called reform outright if their opinion is sought that is very unlikely. Thus if these “experts” ever make it to the top level bureaucracy, they will have the entire civil bureaucracy up in arms against them.  

The need of the moment is therefore not to waste time with the idea of “experts” to “fix” the bureaucracy but to restore its neutrality to save it from the cancer of politicization that is killing it. The idea of employing “experts” would only help spread that cancer. 

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan. 

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