The Bureaucrats Digitise

Jul 3 , 2021
By Christian Tesfaye

A few things characterise government services. They are inefficient and liable to errors, non-standardised, prone to corruption and often burdened by poor organisation. The popular conception of a lower government office that deals with the public daily is one of drabness, creaking floors and dusty walls. The most feared room is the documents’ room, where an unfortunate government employee has to sift through poorly-kept and disorganised papers.

Things seem to be changing, and mainly as a result of a drive to digitise government services. Some services have seen what is nothing less than a revolution. Take getting a driver’s license renewed.

Once one gets the required medical certificate, they have to visit their local district headquarters. Inside, there is usually a queue, but not people standing in lines as we are used to them. There is enough space to sit everyone on every other chair. Drivers are required to take a number, which also comes with a piece of paper to write their details on as they wait.

When ones number comes up on the display board, drivers go to an assigned booth to deal with a government employee. The fee is paid right there, and the driver’s license is printed on the spot. That is it – the whole process. In older days, and many places right now as well, the driver would have to wait for at least a month and make do with a temporary license in the meanwhile.

The process to get a passport renewed is even more advanced. Some months ago, when I did this, I only had to apply online and pay the fee at a Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) near me using the special number I was given on the website. I was then scheduled a date to go and pick up the passport at the post office, which I did.

Such improvements to government systems are mainly a result of the digitisation of services. It has made processes easier. Keeping data in servers means that it takes a second to fetch the details of anyone. Digital signatures allow far easier verification than getting every document and paper signed, stamped and copied at every office the bureaucratic managers can think of. The driver’s license I have just gotten renewed has a QR barcode to identify the license owner even if the details on the front are faded.

Ethiopia has several challenges in the economic sphere, including a bureaucracy that displays “neo-patrimonial" modes of governance as opposed to a system based on merit and employees that “make decisions based on codified rules, in an impartial manner.” There has been much in the way of literature to demonstrate the crucial role played by efficient bureaucratic systems in the economic development of states, which has been highlighted in countries such as South Korea and China.

“Highly selective meritocratic recruitment and long-term career rewards create commitment and a sense of corporate coherence,” wrote Peter Evans in Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. “Corporate coherence gives these apparatuses a certain kind of “autonomy.’”

This is known as a Weberian bureaucracy – one that is organised separately from society to implement the overriding policies of the government. Current economic literature sees the bureaucracy in a slightly different light, and I might add that its role in the economy is closely intertwined with its ability to adapt to new technological systems. This is also what the government services digitisation is attempting to do. There are still ways to go, but the fruits are already visible for people that happen to be renewing their driver’s licenses and passports.

PUBLISHED ON Jul 03,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1105]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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