In the Governance blog on this page, we have identified three basic units of a social structure – Family, Business Organization (BO) and Government. Of these, the last two are closely connected in the two-way processes through lobbying, campaign financing, bailing out and consultation. We will try to examine whether, and to what extent the most cherished democratically elected government institutions can function independent of, and without the BO advice and concurrence – but let us do it at some other time.
The family, people and small businesses, on the other hand, are virtually isolated from the government starting from the day voting is completed. They become blurry faces with only statistical numbers attached to them. People’s only connection with their government is a one-way impersonal process through media news, and sometimes through government press releases and websites. Media? – Let us talk about it at some other time. For now let us try to examine to what extent people’s choices of political executives can function within the constraints of non-elected bureaucracy that surround and overwhelm them with their inner professional knowledge of state affairs.
I would like to start this piece with a BBC news that appeared on 12 July 2016: Larry the Cat escapes Downing Street Eviction. It says, Larry the civil servant (image credit: anon) keeps his job to continue controlling the 10 Downing Street mice. The news came when David Cameron, the then British prime minister had to vacate his official residence after defeat in the Brexit vote. David Cameron vacating the residence after the defeat is democracy – and Larry keeping the job no matter what happens is bureaucracy.
In fact, Larrys – the civil servants always keep their jobs, in one position or another, in one place or another. Because that is how their jobs are defined and contracted. Politicians come and go, but Larrys stay. In a constitutional monarchy such as Britain, Larrys represent the continuity and stability of the monarchy within the roster of the changing Political Guard every few other years. The privilege of continuity and job description helps Larrys to become the most powerful elites within the inner governing circle. The elected political leaders mostly play the shows that are managed, sometimes even conceived by bureaucrats.
Who are these bureaucrats running the government? Well, we know them as government officers or officials. The terms immediately indicate who is the boss and runs the shows. These officers, especially the top ones and the modus operandi of the system belong to the shepherds club. They populate every organization – the larger the organization, the larger is their influence and power – be it in government executive offices, legislature or judiciary, corporations, or world bodies. They are integral part of any governing system – the system has no meaning without them.
Government bureaucracy is highly hierarchical and the rules of business pass through several layers before decisions are made. This process makes the government bureaucracy very inefficient, and the term bureaucratic red tape is used to describe it. The Red Tape rules of business can even prevent elected political leaders from meddling in administrative affairs in some sectors and cases – people are told that these are political interferences. One may wonder where democracy begins and where it stops.
Similar is the case with the bureaucracies of other organizations. Some say, the bureaucracies of world bodies such as UN, IMF, World Bank, world sport controlling bodies are even worse. In for-profit corporations, bureaucratic decisions are made rather quickly and arbitrarily, but often within shaky intricacies of unaccountability.
We can go on and on discussing all different bureaucracies. Let us focus, for simplicity and convenience, on civil administration in the rest of this piece. But before doing so it may help spending a little time on the evolution of the bureaucratic system.
Traditionally European monarchies used to select members from aristocratic families and nobility to fill in key government positions. Competence and merit were considered irrelevant, afraid that such requirements would encourage commons entering into the ruling circle. The other reason is that some top positions hardly need very high skills – apart from having the attitude and power of a boss in control, and playing the role of a post-box, communicating up and down. Even in modern times, some top key positions are filled with people from aristocratic background.
How do the aristocratic bureaucrats supposed to behave? Well, many are set things that one often hears from the leadership gurus – that you let others feel small and unworthy: To talk about work rather than doing the work, to be in control of things, to have assistants following you to take orders, to wear fancy clothes, to talk about fancy food and drink, to sit at the head of the table, and to be the last to arrive and the first to leave in meetings. Surrounded by servants – arrogance and snobbery are supposed to be their mantra to make them feel entitlement to the best of everything. One may wonder how things could get done with such an attitude. Well . . . that is why the system is very wasteful. In modern times, others are smart enough to understand that some are getting credit for doing hardly anything – and the process of contagious behaviors proliferate, spiraling down the real productivity.
Let us get back to have some more glimpses of the bureaucratic evolution. It was the Chinese monarchies that saw the value of merits in governing. They developed an elaborate system of public examinations to select civil servants. Thus Chinese rule were based on meritocracy rather than European system of aristocracy. The Chinese system is like opening the door of aristocracy to the subjects selected on the basis of merit and competence, thus inducting them into the shepherds club.
British monarchy came to learn about the Chinese system in the 18th century and began introducing the system in its colonies. But the British Government was unwilling to apply the same system in its own country. The colonial bureaucrats were trained to behave as Her Majesty’s loyal servant: Think like British, act like British and behave like aliens and superiors to the people of your own country. They were isolated from the general masses with hill slope (hill tops reserved for British) quarters that came with servants, chauffeurs and memberships into the elitist exclusive clubs where strategies were conceived and formulated within closed circles. The colonies saw the rise of arrogant corrupt hypocrites controlling every business of the government. The system still dominates the psyche of civil servants of many former colonies inhibiting social progress and uplift. There had been many efforts in several countries to rein in bureaucratic power, but none of them saw the doors to success – instead bureaucrats started pleading for more power.
In a traditional bureaucratic career, it was assumed that the new recruits would learn on the job to become a seasoned professional. But a new thinking started with the first opening of the business school in 1819 in Paris. The purpose was to train people to serve administrative and management needs, not only for the government but also for all businesses. About a century later, the real thrust came in 1908 with the opening of the Harvard School of Business offering Master of Business Administration degree. With this and subsequent developments, administrative and management services took a complete new turn by overtaking all other professions in controlling and managing things.
How does the power play look like between the elected politicians and the seasoned bureaucrats? Let us have a glimpse of it through the eyes of a comedy series. In the British satirical sitcom, Yes Minister (1980 – 1984) and Yes Prime Minister (1986 – 1988) produced by BBC Television, the power play between the political executives and top bureaucrats was skillfully portrayed. This highly popular sitcom made satirical fun of democratically elected leader’s powers – which in most cases, amounted to nothing more than listening to, and acting according to what the bureaucrats had to say. Bureaucrats even played the role of kingmakers through their skills of manipulating and twisting things in their favor. In fact, political leaders have very little option of handling bureaucrats because they cannot be fired, but can only be transferred to a less import post or position – often known as punishment posting.
In the sitcom, the bureaucrat argues very humbly why the key administrative and managerial functions should be left to them . . . the traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted positions . . . What are the onerous duties and profound deliberations? Well, you must have guessed. These are to quarrel and fight with each other, to cut ribbons and take credit, to be in history books, and to keep the journalists busy with rhetoric and insinuations to convince people that democracy really works – and that, it is the people who are in power.
The journalists? Well, they dance up and down, analyze and reanalyze every lies and rhetoric they have heard to increase their rating. . . . most of our journalists are so incompetent that they have the gravest difficulty in finding that today is Wednesday . . . That is how making fun of the journalists goes within the bureaucratic circle. But could they avoid it? Well, they probably cannot. Because they are the ones who know the truth, and they cannot help but enjoy the attempts of journalists to thread the puzzles to derive conclusions which may appear utterly nonsense to them. But don’t think that is where things stop, because if the journalist’s story goes against their interests, they will arrange with the editors that the journalist gets punished in one way or another.
In fact, Larrys have the luxury of making fun of everybody – because they are the elites close to money and power at its source, and in dissemination – in both upstream and downstream phases. They can take advantage by using the privilege of having access to people’s personal and private information. The privilege of long tenured services makes them and their families stable and rich to think of themselves as god given blessing of aristocracy.
How do the bureaucratic structures differ among the countries? In one-party communist countries, party officials themselves are part of the bureaucracy. Among the democracies, perhaps former British colonies have more doses of bureaucracy than others. In terms of development, developed societies seemed to have more streamlined and efficient bureaucracy than the rest.
What I have discussed so far, should not give the impression that Larrys are bad and that the elected people are just pawns. It is nothing like that. Some bureaucrats just play their role in an abusing system while others could abuse the systems no matter how reasonable they are. Elected people, for that matter any member of the public could also play a role in an abusive system, or could be the abuser themselves individually.
Elected leaders have the difficult job of keeping their commitment to people, but at the same time deal with bureaucratic and other hurdles. Ultimately it is the individual capacities, commitment and competence that determine who fires the shot in the end. Unlike the past aristocratic system, in the modern world power is shared in many layers.
I am tempted here to explore some relevant materials from Buddhist scriptures that have listed some 12 difficulties that a person faces in life. In one of them, Gautama Buddha (563 – 483 BCE) said: It is difficult not to abuse one’s authority. The Buddha did not say it was impossible – but only that it was difficult. Authority accompanies power – and it is easy to get into the temptation of abusing it rather than rising above it. It is difficult also because, as we have tried to see in the Wheel of Life blog on this page, people of authority see the world through the lens of power. Therefore, for them abuse is like entitlement to govern – the suffering of the abused victim hardly cross their mind. The Buddha’s wisdom implies that people entrusted with authority should need to be extra careful not to fall into the temptation of abusing their power.
Because of the different colors of lenses, the views of people, bureaucrats, political and industrial leaders are not always likely to converge – interests are different, pursuits are different and choices are different. In the end there must be a convergence however, because it is possible and necessary – but it is possible only when those in authority stand on solid foundations of integrity and commitment to people’s causes.
Here is an anecdote to ponder:
As the disciple came, the master exploded, “You idiot, why are you here? Go away. Never ever show up here again.”
The disciple could not believe what he heard. What did he do to deserve such an angry insult? Had his master gone crazy? He gathered courage, “Sir, are you fine?”
The master was trembling with anger, “What are you? You stupid! You have heard me. Don’t show your ugly face again.”
The disciple thought for a while and said, “Okay, Sir. I will come back later.”
The disciple returned back next day, “Sir?” He waited to see how his master would react.
The master smiled, “My dear, I am sorry. I have been deliberately behaving weird to test you. I have wanted to provoke you with violent anger. You have passed with honor. You see, it is only the deaf, dumb and the blind, who would be unable to react to insults and angry outbursts. As I have watched you, on the first insult your face has shown the signs of utter disbelief. On the second insult your face has turned from reactive anger to sadness.”
“Oh my gosh! I am so relieved. Thank you Sir.”
“It is only human that we act and react with strong emotions like anger, hatred, fear, sadness, joy and love when facing a situation. I am amazed that, like a person of true wisdom, you have reacted but with the ability of controlling yourself. You deserve a reward.” So saying, the master hugged his dear disciple.
. . . . .
- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 25 August 2016