Puplic Bureaucracy And Development:A point of view


By Prof. Wiswa Warnapala

Sri Lankan public bureaucracy, though it came into existence as a colonial instrument, was adapted to the economic and social needs of the country and the process of adaptation began under the Donoughmore dispensation. The public bureaucracy has, since then, been transformed by the different governments in the post-independence period and deriving inspiration from the colonial tradition, it adjusted accordingly to the political perceptions of the regimes which came to power. It was during this period that the public bureaucracy, though it experienced numerous changes in its composition, organization, forms of recruitment and the social background of the new recruit, performed its assigned tasks and responsibilities reasonably well, and the nature of politicization, though it came to influence the administrative institutions in a covertly way, never became so powerful as to destroy both rationality and efficiency the public administration. All public administrative institutions, along with all subsidiary and intermediary institutions, are today in a crisis, which, of course, is due to the inability of the institutions to understand their mission. The crisis in the bureaucratic authority and the power and influence exercised by the public bureaucracy and other administrative institutions have been subordinated by the political authority, when compared with such authority of the past. It is substantially different as its techniques do not augur well for a country engaged in development in an environment of post-conflict triumphalism. By bureaucratic power and influence, we mean the authority, power and influence exercised by the professional administrators who constitute the administrative sector of the modern State. Restricting our attention to the public bureaucracy, its present role in the context of an attempt to emphasis development, the nature and functions of the existing administrative extent to which both administrative rationality and efficiency have been destroyed in this country.

Post-conflict situation

In a post-conflict situation, where people are tired of un-ending paternalistic fanfare and views on triumphalism, they have now begun to discuss the need for rapid development. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his development discourses in the districts, emphasises the need to accelerate development and the public bureaucracy has been entrusted with the task. Of course, the process of development in the districts needs to take place with the assistance of the local political leadership. As far as this question of development is concerned, one cannot see a distinction between the role of the administrator and the role of the politician and the latter wants to dominate all the activities in the broad areas of development, and this, in fact, is a dilemma and nobody knows whose decisions are to prevail on the matter. The general view was that development in all societies led to the emergence of a new class of managers, who, of course, are bureaucrats, who are said to be a new class of rulers. They, however, are not as powerful as the politicians who constitute the ruling political class and they invariably belong to the ruling elite. In all countries, especially in the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the socio-economic development is the major political goal, and the administrative system of the given country has to be converted into an action instrument to mobilise resources for development; the mobilization of people for development-oriented activities is included. The argument is that bureaucratic organisations, which exercise both power and influence, contribute to the making of policy and the implementation of policy, and this has been the significance of bureaucratic power as Max Weber has pointed out. In a country where the administrative system was based on an established bureaucratic tradition, the importance of the bureaucratic authority needs to be properly understood by the political leadership. Most significant variable is the changing character of the political leadership, whose economic, social, educational backgrounds are considerably different today, and they, above all, lack a world vision and no powerful social ideology propels them into action, and this has created an environment where the rational bureaucracy has been brought under the thrust of the politician whose only priority is the accrual of some kind of political advantage. One can understand that if this kind of overt influence remains within a legitimate constituency need as in the past but it goes beyond that parameter and the politician seeks other advantages. The experience is that local politicians are incapable of rational behaviour. It was true that with the emergence of the present day local politician that the fundamental and traditional social and economic interests and such sources of power have been weakened and a new local ruling class has emerged. Such interests, whatever their weaknesses, were able to work in close collaboration with the public bureaucracy and the goals, though limited, were achieved. In such a set-up, the bureaucratic power could be easily located, but the situation today is complicated and different as the political office-holding, at all levels, has created an over-arching influence on the entire administrative State. It has become very difficult for the common man to understand what sort of power is exercised by a particular public official in an area, because the bureaucratic power has been dispersed through a variety of institutions and officials.

Proliferaton of institutions

There is a marked proliferation of institutions and officials at the district and divisional levels of administration and the recognition of the theory of devolution of power has made a mess of administration at these levels of decentralized administration. This situation is due to the fact that corresponding changes in the administration was not done along with the establishment of the units of devolution of power. APRC, which is now forgotten, recommended the creation of an Administrative Reforms Committee to go into this vital aspect.

The problem of the new political elite with ill-gotten wealth in the local areas is to communicate their desires, their ambitions, their source of priorities and urgency to the mass of the people in the given electorate and their main task, as advertised by them, is to mobilize the resources of the State for the social and economic benefit of the area, which in the eyes of the government, is development. It is the politician, not the bureaucrat, who decides on the priorities at the provincial, district, divisional and the village level administration, and the Decentralised Budget has been used as an instrument and licence to directly interfere in the investment in development. All decisions, though based on local constituency needs are entirely those of the Member of Parliament and certain vital features of the PR scheme of representation made development at this level very much lop-sided. This has been described as a kind of popular participation in development, a scheme through which the needs of the people are transmitted to the desk of the decision-maker. The existence of popular element in it is not denied here but the considerations are absolutely political. There is a marked difference between the quality of the power of the administrator and the quality of power exercised by the politician, and it is this developing feature which has created what is called bureaucratic apathy. The bureaucratic power in all societies, both developed and developing, depends on the manner power is exercised with both impartiality and rationality. As Max Weber said the bureaucratic organisation is technically the most highly developed means of power, and this power is often distrusted. In Sri Lanka, since the introduction of semi-responsible government in 1931, the public bureaucracy based on the British tradition, became adapted to the changing political and economic objectives of the State and the process of adaptation was such that it did not destroy the very basis of the bureaucracy. The role of the bureaucracy remained adaptive and innovative and the policy-making function and its innovative function tended to predominate and the public bureaucracy and the public administrative institutions were used to promote certain broad goals of development and the formulation of policy did not come into conflict with both the constitutional government and the aspirations of the State. In other words, the political and constitutional changes, including the Constitution of 1972, did not impair the ability and the enthusiasm of the public bureaucracy in the discharge of its adaptive role. The allegation leveled against the public bureaucracy is that it, despite its own capacity for adaptation while pursuing its own areas of power and influence, is fast becoming an appendage of the fiat of political power.

Decline of bureaucracy

The experience is that an established bureaucracy with a tradition functions in the form of a facilitating and also as a critical agent of government in a parliamentary system. The continuity of experience and the body of knowledge, which the public bureaucracy commands, gives them power to play a critical role in both administration and development. Has this role declined? It has visibly declined due to the changing character of the governments in power; for instance the organisation and the bureaucracy were not transformed in keeping with the changes in the constitutional structure of government, and the types of administrative personnel have been increased in response to development needs. The relationship of the institution with the political leadership has not been properly defined, and it, on other hand, is not easy to define the relationships as there is such a vast proliferation of institutions and public official. The devolution of power under the 13th Amendment made it more difficult as the provincial institutions are engaged in numerous tasks. There is so much of overlapping and duplication of functions. If the development objectives of the State are to be realised, the role and parameters of power of the multifarious administrative institutions have to be properly defined and their respective roles determined. It is not easy to define such relationships as the institutions have been set up on ad hoc basis and the narrow political and parochial considerations have guided their establishment. One cannot say that things have been left to the conventional administrative wisdom. In assessing the performance and the delivery capacity of the administrative institutions at the provincial, district, divisional and village levels, a multitude of factors need to be taken into account, and the singularly important factor has been the political factor.

Impartiality, anonymity

and neutrality

The greater involvement of the bureaucracy in the affairs of the state makes it more responsible and responsive and the basic question, therefore, is whether the concept of impartiality, anonymity and neutrality are valid today. The disappearance of all these conventions make the bureaucracy more visible and a tool in the hands of the politician and this lead to more friction; both efficiency and rationality are sacrificed, and administrators become a kind of ‘brokers’ of the politician and this kind of process is accelerated with the appointment of incompetent friends and relatives as administrators. Incompetence and mediocrity have become marked qualities of certain top echelons in the administration. Whatever the nature of the government in power, there is an administrative system at its disposal and the power elite has to deal with an administrative system and the subordination of the latter to the former is inevitable. In Sri Lanka, the administrative system and the public bureaucracy has become the major instrument of economic and social development. Most development projects have been executed by them. The question is whether the existing administrative apparatus and the bureaucracy, with a large number of mediocre political appointees, has the required capacity to push the development process forward as well as whether the existing bureaucracy has been converted into an effective action instrument? It is this aspect which needs elaboration as the present government has embarked on an ambitious development programme with mega projects, some of which are utterly unnecessary at this stage of development of the country.

In all countries, the governing elite, irrespective of the name with which they assume political power, has at its disposal a trained public bureaucracy. Administrative system, therefore, becomes the major instrument of development, and the composition and competencies of the public bureaucracy are vital factors. The form of recruitment, professionalisation, specialisation and the independence are fundamental features of an administrative bureaucracy that can function as an instrument of development. Sri Lankan bureaucracy, at this stage, needs to be action oriented for the purpose of achieving development goals. At independence, the country inherited such a system which delivered and fulfilled its role effectively but its influence has now disappeared and the system, which it replaced, is very much different from its illustrious predecessor. One can contend stating that a truly Sri Lankan bureaucratic authority is now in the saddle and the criticism is that this bureaucracy opened its door to a process of rapid politicisation of all the administrative tasks and they did not have the skill and capacity to resist this trend and they have now become hapless victims of a process of politicisation. Unlike in the past, the present administrative elite, which is more representative of the people than in the past, has to play a development role, and they are largely development administrators. It was the continued emphasis on development which helped them to break away from the previous role, the main feature of which was ‘law and order administration’. Today, the government utilises the public bureaucracy for any number of different purposes and every new development project gives the bureaucracy additional functions and responsibilities, and this, of course, is the current scenario in the sphere of public administration of the country. It is in this context that the competence of the public bureaucracy is tested. Most significant requirement is to define the role of the bureaucracy in development in order to see whether they have the capacity to facilitate the realisation of the development tasks in harmony with the overall political objectives of a party in power.

 Continued tomorrow

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