Civil servants, while not necessarily a part of the governing party, play a crucial role in the coordination and implementation of policies in government. Problem identification, formulation, and implementation of all policy actions of any government rest on civil servants.
Policy formulation is highly dependent on available information, choices, and strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis. Processing this needs technical knowledge that only technocrats possess. Policies are buttressed by facts and figures when formulated and evaluated and the bureaucracy is the institution with those facts and figures. The bureaucracy administrates daily decision making using the guiding book of the government in power.
The daily administration of government decisions gives bureaucrats the privilege and opportunity to communicate directly with political parties, pressure groups, individual citizens, and syndicates. This is because technocrats are service providers on behalf of the government, an activity that provides the bureaucracy with a direct link with a gamut of social, political and economic strata. They get to know the interest groups, syndicates, powerful individual citizens and influential politicians and their interests. This is important in figuring out “who gets what, how, when and why” in the state generally.
The bureaucracy, being the non-political executive of a state, is assumed to be politically neutral. This is quite important for continuity in administration or at least a smooth transition.
In Ethiopia where development is at the heart of everything, building strong and committed bureaucracy should be at the crux of building a democratic developmental state. This is particularly because development requires continuity in efforts and administration in developmental states. If there is any break, developmental activities and progress would be affected.
For this and other reasons, development activities are advised to be led and administered by technocracy. Second, development requires coordination among various departments of public administration and a coordination between private and public administration. The bureaucracy is the most capable and permanent institution equipped to do the coordination. To add to this the development of developmental states is technically engineered, and monitored by technocrats. The bureaucracy is also effective in maintaining law and order required for strong developmental states.
Therefore, the Ethiopian developmental state should help and build a strong civil service with a strong sense of responsibility and mission, as a substitute the current rent-seeking political economy that the government admits exists.
It should try to fill in market failures which is pervasive in developing economies like the one that exists in this country, and to maintain law and order important to promote a developmental political economy. It needs to build a strong state-of-the-art bureaucracy; competent and neutral bureaucracy that ensures effective implementation. This requires a strong education system and efficient set of public sector organizations with little corruption, an institutionalized process where the bureaucracy and government engage with other stakeholders, an established development framework and a comprehensive governance system to ensure the program is implemented.
The experience in East Asia has revealed that successful growth-oriented intervention depends on four major elements: stable rule by apolitical-bureaucratic elite that can resist political demands that would undermine economic growth, cooperation between the public and private sectors under the overall guidance of a strategic planning agency, heavy and continuing investment in education for everyone combined with policies to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth, and a government that understands and respects the importance of market-determined prices.
All the reasons alluded have a strong and coordinated state institution called the bureaucracy at the centre. Research on developmental states further shows that the bureaucracy in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan usually recruits the sharpest, most qualified people in the system, nurture its ties with the educated elite, and perpetually seeks to distance itself from political oversight, confident in its own objective infallibility.
In his work on Japan’s industrialization and the role of the powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Chalmers Johnson, a professor emeritus of the University of California, described the core of the developmental state as “politicians reign and bureaucrats rule.”
Professionalism, meticulous meritocratic recruitment and promotion process, promises of long-term rewards, insulation from the demands of the business community and short-sighted political calculation, technocratic prestige and competence, and embedded autonomy are chief features of a bureaucracy in a truly developmental state.
The government has for the past month engaged in evaluating and renewing the civil service in different public service institutions with the aim of creating a bureaucracy capable of carrying out developmental responsibilities. The evaluation and rejuvenation platform arranged for civil servants also aimed at inculcating the developmental state political economic thought into the bureaucracy.
Would this bring about a bureaucracy desired by the developmental state?
This should only be part of the effort. As part of its long-term effort, Ethiopia has embarked on comprehensive public service reform aimed at creating new government machineries to establish efficient and effective management systems and bureaucracy. The performance of the public services has not improved that much owing to factors such as what observers put as the politicization of the civil service, coupled with corruption, rent seeking behaviour, lack of motivation and incentives, misconduct and lack of effective accountability mechanisms that undermined not only by lack of professionalism but also competence. The civil servants are cynical about reform programs and tools used to improve performance like the “one to five” and command post arrangements, and the developmental army is rendering them ineffective.
The argument regarding the scepticism of the civil servant of such reforms and tools of change and the declining civil service morale is that public sector reform is unlikely to be successful if public servants regard themselves as being involuntarily pledged to perform to externally imposed standards without commensurate remuneration, which is apparent in many African countries including Ethiopia. This poses a problem for internal cohesiveness of the state and the bureaucracy, which again compromise the capacity of the state.
If the state is not strong enough to prevent the slide into predatory practices by individual functionaries and the dissipation of resources through a lack of selectivity in economic policies, then it would result in rent seeking behaviour and political decay. Any attempt to fight rent-seeking behaviour should begin with building an effective bureaucratic tradition. A proper bureaucracy secures state cohesiveness through norms of comportment for state functionaries and, in doing so, channels their actions away from individualistic and predatory practices. This it does by putting into place abstract and clearly specified rules and ensuring that functionaries’ decisions are guided by such rules, rather than by their own private interests.
The commitment to rule-following is compounded by a second mechanism crucial for state cohesiveness, namely, the adherence to clearly specified norms of recruitment and career mobility. The establishment of such criteria for bureaucratic promotion reinforces one of the effects of proper rule-following: they orient functionaries away from personal gain and toward the duties attached to their station. They also, however, generate a kind of pride within the bureaucracy: the knowledge that they belong to a selected group with similar qualifications and rare skills, creating a corporate culture among functionaries which in turn secures state cohesiveness.
Bureaucracy is a double-edged sword. While it is instrumental in orienting functionaries around goals other than personal gain, bureaucracy also generates a host of other effects that can impede and even reverse state cohesiveness. Hence, while it is indeed important for the state to be staffed by rule-following bureaucrats, this will lead to a stable and cohesive developmental state only in the presence of an appropriately coordinated state apparatus and disciplined coordination. In the absence of the latter, not only will bureaucratic rationality be less effective, but it can become a weapon against state cohesiveness.
Weighed against the above backdrop, Ethiopia’s public service as an institution has a long way to go to acquire those brilliant qualities and institutional setups. Reports indicate that staff turnover and lack of institutional memories are among the key challenges faced by the Ethiopian public sector, which raises questions about wage setting and incentive mechanisms. Studies affirm that the major causes of staff turnover are low salary and non-salary benefits in the civil service and better remunerations by other employers in the country.
Nominal wages and salaries are increasing in absolute terms mainly due to the increase in the number of public sector employees. Similarly, following various salary adjustments at different times, the average nominal wage has increased. Nevertheless, the average real wages are declining as the prices of consumers’ goods are going up and purchasing power of the birr declines.
This is a concern for the government of Ethiopia that is using the second edition of the Great Transformation Plan (GTP II) but beginning to struggle to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The government, in corroborating the above concern, admits that a concerted effort to dismantle the rent-seeking political economy and build a developmental and democratic one in its place cannot be achieved unless such an effort is made in the context of building a democratic development minded army organized for change. But the question that remains to be answered is how ready the government is to build a committed bureaucracy at any cost.
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