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Yeeeah... I'm going to need you to go ahead and come in on... Sunday, too.

I was recently having a drink with a doctor who volunteers in a hospital in Tanzania, and the conversation inevitably passed to work (after we’d exhausted more interesting topics, like the Ashes). We were swapping notes on the working environment within our respective organisations, both arms of the extended civil service operating with local management, payscales, skills and equipment. It was surprising how similar our experiences were, despite the fact that he works in direct service delivery while I am safely ensconced several removes away in the Ministry of Finance, working in a technical and policy advisory position. Most of our conversation centred on the ways in which our respective working environments could be enhanced by better use and organisation of the central resource of both: the staff. Leaving aside poor technical skills, a well understood problem, we came up with a number of other troublesome issues.

At almost all levels, many staff don’t actually spend much time on their own jobs. They have extremely high workloads, in theory at least, and are not paid commensurately. At senior and middle-management levels, many therefore seek to supplement their incomes with consultancies or external projects of some kind. This takes many forms. Doctors can do consultancies at private clinics; economists and similarly trained staff can take on research projects or short term consultancies advertised by other Government departments; and many simply have businesses or commercial concerns (such as farms) outside of work and in different fields altogether. This inevitably reduces the time they spend on what is meant to be the core stuff of their job, with knock-on effects to their effectiveness and the effectiveness of the whole organisation.

The latter point is worth unpacking a little. Of course, if individual staff members are performing below their abilities, this will lower the performance of the organisation as a whole. But when it happens to management staff, there is a more insidious result as well. Most civil services I’ve seen in Southern Africa are very hierarchical, a reflection of societies in which generational conflict has been common, and seniority in almost all spheres of life brings enormous influence. When senior staff are constantly away, or take a long time to approve or clear work or decisions taken by those lower down in the food chain, the entire process of Government slows down to a crawl. This is frustrating in an office like mine, where getting a piece of analysis or a policy proposal cleared and published can take weeks, but it’s even worse in organisations that depend on swift action, such as hospitals, health centres, police stations and the like. In such contexts, well informed and competent people will be extremely reluctant to make a decision even when the cost of delay is extremely high. Part of this is due to a fear of repercussions arising from breach of protocol, but in part it is also because for many it’s simply inconceivable to take a decision without the explicit say-so of their superiors.

This isn’t the extent of management problems either; even when management is around problems are significant. In many cases, it seems that managers are particularly bad at distributing the workload of staff, meaning that some are constantly overworked and others constantly underutilised. In both cases, coupled with poor salaries, this results in very weak motivation and sometimes commensurately poor performance. This is partly a reflection of the common failure to adequately plan for a work cycle. Most Government functions have broad predictability in that certain things need to be done on a regular basis by a certain time, while emerging issues must also be dealt with as and when they emerge. This should result in pretty clear roles for staff in meeting recurring deadlines and a protocol for dealing with ad hoc issues.

A lot of people blame this problem on a lack of management skills, but I think there is something deeper going on. We’re not talking about rocket science here: it’s simply making a basic plan for what you do and occasionally checking it, and making sure people all have some work to do. Rather, I think there’s a great degree of bureaucratic politics at work as well. It can be very profitable to be the holder of knowledge, resources and skills in an underskilled and information-poor Government. They constitute personal power in the sense that the ones who have them are difficult to sack and have a disproportionate voice in Government, and they can also be used to reproduce power in the sense that they can be used almost like patronage goods, to attract followers and build up a personal sphere of influence. Influence within Government increases the scope for both legal and illegal rent-seeking.

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A Very Exciting Post about Grey-Suited Bureaucracy

Reorganizing the Civil Service is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles

Reorganizing the Civil Service is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles

Government is not a team. It is a loose confederation of warring tribes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby

The critics of the global aid architecture tend to focus a great deal of our ammunition on donors, and this fulfils a useful function. Donors do many things wrong collectively and individually; on the grand scale of their ambitions and in the minute details of specific programmes. They also have far more power than the average developing country Government and so are under less pressure to reform their practices. Of course, small and large NGOs are fodder for criticism concerning their venality and uselessness or their bizarre programmes in others while Governments come under a great deal of fire for their more exuberant violations of the social contract to which they are supposedly held.

In general criticism of Government tends to be of its role as a political entity. Equally worthy of thought is the functioning of Government as a bureaucratic structure. I’ve worked in civil services in a few countries now for varying stretches of time, and have deep reservations as to whether their structure in low-income countries is best suited to get the most out of any development expenditure, let alone aid.

I should make it clear that I believe that strong Government is central to the possibility of organised development (i.e. any process of economic transition that is managed to occur rapidly). This isn’t a universally accepted view, but my own inclination to look at historical development processes suggests that Governments are often central to development, whether through the affirmation and enforcement of property rights (as De Soto argues) or through active industrial policy (Chang). Their attempts do not always work, but the potential is there, provided they identify and execute their most appropriate role. The analysis that follows is a questioning of whether or not current structures help or hinder this.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether a particular Government is as an entity developmental or not. We’ll imagine a well-functioning democracy with a stable political base, capable of making difficult decisions but not so stable as to be a de facto autocracy. In a low-income African country, how would you structure this Government’s bureaucracy? Think about it for a moment, while I sketch what most developing country Finance Ministries actually look like, focusing on the policy side.

The Ministry is overseen as a political creature by the Minister of Finance; its technocratic brain is a Secretary to the Treasury. The political and technocratic masters of the Finance ministry oversee a bureaucracy that normally comprises of these elements: a budget department; an accountant general’s office, which manages the process of Government spending; a department for external finance; a tax and revenues department, which deals with the policy of taxation while collection is undertaken by a separate agency. Most countries will have some kind of macro-economic monitoring department. All will also have a national planning and strategy section. These are the departments that create Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) and their successor documents. In some cases these will be a department in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning; in others it will be a separate Ministry of Economic Planning.

Instinctively, most of this seems to make sense. After all, it’s how most developed country Treasuries will be organised, though substituting the External Finance department with a foreign assistance department of some description, and with the addition of some further policy arms and perhaps a slightly finer sub-division of responsibilities. Yet, those of us who have spent significant stretches of time inside these developing bureaucracies quickly realise that this structure does not work.

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