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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You can build it. But they still might not come.

 

photo posted on www.post-gazette.com

Kevin Costner built the field and got a game going. I think he was lucky.

An anthropologist I know once told me a great story, which may be a rural myth. It was about a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea from which two members were given the opportunity to travel outside of their homestead to see the urban world in all its ‘glory’. When they returned, they recounted their experiences to the rest of the tribe, and they set about replicating one of the more amazing things they’d seen: an airport. They cleared a runway. They built an observation tower out of wood. They even crafted headphones with little reed antennae for the ground control team to wear. When they were done, they waited for the planes to arrive.

They never did. Building the structures, the visible artifices of an airport is only symbolic. The actual meaning of what an airport is, what makes it functional, cannot be seen. It lies in the relations between people and institutions and in agreements between them.

This anecdote constantly pops into my mind when I observe technical reform processes introduced by donors (often with domestic support) in African Governments. Mark Miller and Matt have both discussed this issue in the past. What they and I have in common (apart from devastating good looks and a rapier-sharp wit) is that we have all done time as long term TAs in developing country Governments. All of us have been witness to ambitious reform programmes stalling on the road to implementation or lying dead and ineffective after implementation. Yet only sporadically have the causes of this been critically examined and learnt from.

On this note, The Roving Bandit recently linked to an exciting post from the IMF’s Public Financial Management blog (and yes, I’m aware of the depths of geekery I’ve plumbed by using the word ‘exciting’ about the IMF and PFM). In it, Richard Allen makes a series of simple, reasonable statements about how technical reform should and shouldn’t be tackled in low income countries. Three things that had me high-fiving myself:

The experience of now-developed countries suggests that the process of establishing credible and robust budgetary institutions can take many decades, or longer. There is no reason to expect LICs to be different.

Because the necessary basics are not in place, many reforms are likely to fail.

Much more attention needs to be given to the political economy constraints to reform since changing budgetary institutions is not at root a technocratic issue.

The most important point Mr. Allen makes is the last one, and it extends beyond budgeting. Very few reform processes recognize that at root, the biggest problems in Government administrations are political economy problems. They are not technical or technocratic problems. Treating them as such can simply create new problems without actually addressing the original ones.

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