Rational Bureaucracy: Indispensable to Efficient Provision of Services

Aug 22 , 2020
By Halima Abate (MD)

In the realm of public management, there is the never-ending concern to implement government policies effectively and efficiently to offer palpable benefits and changes to the public. The large scale of key functions that the government performs – from national defence and social welfare programmes to tax collection – have to be administered through a formal and rationalised process to make administration and governance possible and to keep records.

These operations are often revealed through a bureaucratic apparatus. It needs to be responsive to, adapt and shape the needs and demands of the public. It is a failure in this regard that often undermines developmental plans. It gets worse the further down the ladder a country is in terms of economic development and political freedoms. It is countries that have been able to address this fundamental problem that succeeded in putting in place an efficient system of administration and governance in the public sector.

Bureaucracy is a formal, legitimate instrument of rationality where a myriad of tasks of regular order ar processed. It is an indispensable element in the implementation of public policies and generates the surplus capacity to absorb the costs incurred as a result of the complexities of rationalised governance. Consideration of democratic governance as the baseline foundation for the formulation of bureaucratic ethics - participation, equality, accountability and transparency - are fundamental.

“Precision, speed,  clarity,  knowledge of  the  archives, continuity,  discretion,  unity, strict  subordination, reduction of friction and costs with material and personnel,” wrote Max Weber, the famous political economist, “are brought to the optimum level in the strictly bureaucratic administration, especially in its monocratic form.”

Weber was arguing for the superiority of bureaucracy as a system of organisation in the use of the administration of the affairs of the state. This argument is barely ever uncontested, but the ethics that need to be utilised to inform the behaviour of the bureaucracy are rarely ever understood.

Considering Ethiopia’s developmental aspirations, the civil service class should be supplemented with technical standards and tools for accountability. This endeavour should be part and parcel of any strategic plan going forward. The bureaucrats are the gatekeepers of effective administration, and without bringing change there, it would be impossible to assure consistency and stability of any policy or long-term initiative.

However, politics complicates matters. The bureaucracy is an essential tool for the control of and deployment of state resources. It is critical for any sort of state capture of capital and the consolidation of political power. In this process, the bureaucracy will be co-opted and diverted away from its purpose of effective administration. Once it becomes a political instrument, the bureaucracy ceases to be rational.

Indeed, anyone in power has political interests and is looking to put in place policies that fit the calls and causes that they fought for. But a balance should nonetheless be struck between the provision of public services in a cost-effective and technocratic way, enhancing the capacity of the government machinery to carry out the core functions of the state efficiently manner and the ideological underpinning of the government in power.

Efforts in this regard should be exerted to formulate a well-performing bureaucracy characterised by horizontal policy development, integrated service delivery, managerial discretion and flexibility tailored to the particular circumstances.

This is partly a process of formulation of the bureaucracy as a class unto itself. The central tenets of this are rationalisation and transparent administrative systems. The combination of these makes it possible for the bureaucracy to respond to, be flexible and maximise the organisational capacity of the state.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 22,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1060]

Halima Abate (MD) is a public health professional with over a decade of experience. She can be reached at halimabate@gmail.com.

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