In Praise of Bureaucracy and the Civil Service

“The public service is the connecting link between the State and the people, and as such, it is the incubator of public trust or mistrust in government. Other factors may play a role, but people are most likely to trust government when public servants effectively deliver desired services in a timely manner, behave transparently and ethically, demonstrate accountability and integrity, are responsive to the needs of the people and mirror the diversity within the population.”

— ‘Reconstructing Public Administration after Conflict’ – World Public Sector Report 2010, United Nations

Reading the title of this article many of our readers would certainly think that we are trying to be facetious. This would not be surprising because it is so fashionable today to cast the Civil Service into the role of the villain and blame it for all our shortcomings. We argue here that the dominant ideology of the day has led to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to our appreciation of the role of the bureaucracy and by extension of the Civil service in maintaining a sense of order and discipline in our day to day experiences.

A number of events which have come to light since the last general elections have clearly demonstrated that the Civil Service has gone through nothing short of a debacle over the past decades. Some commentators would pinpoint the start of this constantly deteriorating state of affairs to the ill-fated decision to amend the Constitution after the first 60-0 MMM-PSM victory of 1982. Undoubtedly then animated by the best of intentions the Government thought it expedient to take into its own hand the right to dismiss Senior Civil Servants on the grounds of “public interest.” With the passage of time it became abundantly clear that this was proving hugely destabilizing for the proper functioning of the Civil Service.

Once again politicians proved that they are rarely inclined to give away the powers which they wield, as successive governments of different hues have since come and gone without even a second thought being given to this matter. In any case although this was a serious contributory factor, it was soon to be followed by a series of practices which would completely alter the balance between the roles of the Civil Service and the political masters of the day. Among these was the appointment of “advisers” to Ministers, a practice which under the previous government had taken ridiculous proportions.

In this regard former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing in his memoirs (A Journey) about some of the shortcomings of the traditional structure of the Civil Service, states the following:

“Into this infrastructure, the import of special advisers is not a breach in the walls of propriety; it is a perfectly sensible way of enlarging the scope of advice and making government move. As I discovered early on, the problem with the traditional Civil Service was not obstruction, but inertia.”

While one can agree with this statement in principle, it can nevertheless be problematic in practice when the roles and attributions of such special advisers remain ill defined and perceived merely as “jobs for the boys” as has been the case in Mauritius for some time now.

The above are but a few, albeit the most obvious, among the causes of the decline of the status of the Civil Service as an operative arm of government in Mauritius over the past decades. It must be said that there are also some exogenous factors which have contributed to the phenomenon. First among those is the general global governance environment in which the term bureaucracy has come to be associated with the worst aspects of public administration. Since the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher “revolutions” of the 1980s, the mantra of business management which enthusiastically champions abolishing bureaucracy so that entrepreneurship may flourish has been generalized to support the idea that “good government means less government.”

In the euphoria that followed, the baby has been carelessly thrown out with the bathwater. The very foundation of the bureaucratic system, the part that takes care of what social scientist Herbert Simon calls the “programmed decisions handled through habit, standard operating procedure, and organizational structures” was the first to bear the brunt of the new wave. It was forgotten that at a basic level bureaucracy is an essential component of administration and the more so of public administration – that Bureaucracy is the perfect administrative response for organizing tasks which while being routine and repetitive in nature are nevertheless essential for the overall efficiency of the governance system.

Come to think of it, many of the crises which we face in our everyday experience can be traced to a breakdown of “bureaucracy” i.e. “the organization conceived to process information in an orderly, efficient, competent, accurate, timely and repeatable manner.” Of course innovations such as the concept of e-governance through wider application of Information Technology and social media can radically transform the mode of operation of the bureaucracy and improve efficiency of the delivery process, but it must be admitted that it does not change the fundamental character (routine and repetitive) of the tasks that need to be performed. It can therefore be postulated that one of the most urgent objectives of Civil Service reform should be the rehabilitation of the foundation of the system.

When it comes to the top echelons of the Civil Service the situation is unfortunately as chaotic. Theoretically in our system the Senior Civil Servants (SCS) are basically managers of the organization (the Civil Service) and are responsible for providing the administrative support to Ministers. Their role is to ensure that the policies decided at a political level are executed in a timely and orderly manner so that the objectives of government are achieved. These objectives can vary in nature from the timely delivery of large infrastructure works to the proper delivery of services to the citizens of the country. The primary function of the Permanent Secretary as head of a Ministry is to supervise the smooth running of his administration through a predetermined hierarchy.

However, the gradual professionalization of the Service has over time blurred the lines between the administrative support function and involvement of SCS in all three functions of policy-making: agenda setting, policy formulation and execution. It is perhaps the nature of this involvement which needs to be re-defined if we wish to avoid the kind of embarrassment to the SCS which we are witnessing these days. Professional Civil Servants can no doubt contribute a lot of value through their experience resulting from continuity across changing political personnel, institutional memory and seasoned perspectives on policies and programs. It needs to be perfectly clear however that their expertise is confined to the provision of advice and support on the implementation of policies decided by the political decision-makers including the Minister’s special advisers. The latter on the other hand would have no business getting involved in “administrative” matters.

It must be recognized that demarcating the roles of the SCS and those of the political personnel is easier said than done. It does not alter the fact that this is a necessary even if not sufficient condition for the smooth running of government. This is where the need for a cadre of professional administrators is badly needed. Professor Paul Chapman of the Said Business School (Oxford) describes some of the qualities of such professionals in the following words, “they require the ability to inspire a team of specialists across a range of governmental and private organizations and be politically savvy while retaining the credibility and moral authority to reach out and engage with a range of stakeholder groups and to listen to and act on their concerns.”

Re-establishing the bureaucracy and the Civil Service in their proper role as a necessary agent for successful implementation of government policy and timely delivery of services to the citizens is a critical factor for the successful development of the country. It will definitely entail large investments in capacity-building through training and the modernisation of the organization to enable recruitment of the best elements among professional cadres. It is no doubt a most challenging task but one without which socio-economic progress will definitely be stalled.



  • Published in print edition on 14 August 2015

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