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Growing disenchantment with public services

Hossain Mohammad Omar Khayum | December 09, 2019 00:00:00

The debates and discussions on public administration and governance continue toing and froing from serenity to sanity. The dialogue on the functional roles of the state, public officials and civil servants raises two issues; one is governments' role in adapting to globalisation and their responses towards the ever-changing context of international relations, politics and economics; the other is an alarming spike in citizens' dissatisfaction with public services. In this discussion, this author is going to focus on the second one, as exclusively it is a threat to the core of governments' legitimacy, which is the essence of democracy and additionally it is stimulated by the first one as well.

Recent literature is much concerned about the transition of the political systems, which are becoming more and more drawn towards binary indicators of democracy. This makes them just nominally democratic and that systematically motivates them to impose restrictions, which are severe in nature over the participation in political dialogues by average citizens. This tide divides according to the government structures and becomes either a delegative presidential system or a parliamentary illiberal-democracy. In a delegative democratic system whoever wins a presidential election governs the country as he sees fit and illiberal-democracies hold elections but restrict civil rights and liberties.

Because of an electorally established elitist phenomenon and narrow space in terms of the degree of involvement, which is mostly enforced to preserve sovereignty or national security or similar other justifications, the institutions in a pseudo-democracy also evolve to sustain the populism. The dominating parties are broadly nationalist, ideologically centrist and attach themselves with the image of nationalist or founding leaders: Bhutto or Jinnah in Pakistan, Ataturk in Turkey, Gandhi or Nehru in India and the list goes on. Over time, the parties become a source of career and fortune building and gradually loses their populist edge when they institutionalise the concept of 'indicator-based democracy' while impeding and extremely polarising its societal consolidation.

But what is the public administration's role here? Systematically, as a whole, public administration is the closest institution to average citizens when it comes to interaction with their governors. And, that is what a populist pseudo-democrat requires to rise, survive and sustain. Because, it is the detailed systematic execution of public law and mobilising resources to execute the alternative options for establishing an illiberal-democracy is impossible without a symbiotic relationship between the political parties and the administration. For example, only election administration bodies have the necessary access to adjudicate electoral disputes or falsify the results in favour of a pseudo-democrat and even present it as the administration's own incompetence whereas it is an intentional manipulation. And, there are numerous other forms. The symbiosis sustains over legal and illegal financial incentives, empowerment and absolute loyalty towards the incumbent. As a result, acts of recklessness dominate the behaviour of actors from both ends and naturally they are ignored and/or overlooked.

A common scenario among the public officials of pseudo-democracies is that the reported cases are always success stories. Tasks assigned to them by the regime are the only sources for them to corroborate personal worth and loyalty. So, policy failures, mass disagreements, etc. always tend to be pushed beneath the carpet. Perfect examples can be drawn from the recent issues in our very own country: dengue and city corporations; pasteurised liquid milk and Department of Livestock and Fisheries; non-performing loans along with catastrophe in the country's banking system and the duo of Bangladesh Bank and the ministry of finance; corruption cases related to government procurement in different departments and offices, etc.

Similar cases happened during the last years of East German dictatorship. A renowned researcher in the field, Peter Grieder, reported about that in 2012, where he discussed the insulated party leaders at the Centre, who always remained embroiled in a "fool's paradise" over the refined false reports sent from the districts. The Politburo was totally in the black when everything fell apart in the late 1980s as previously the districts didn't risk reporting truthfully and attempt addressing issues remaining within, by themselves. The same grammar caused the great famine in China from 1959 to 1961, mass starvation in Cambodia in the early 70s and so on.

In 1989, Max De Pree said, "The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body …The signs are measured by the extent or degree to which the followers are reaching their potentials, achieving required results and exhibiting gracefulness in reacting to change." And this applies to all spheres of politics, economy and society. So, when we have a look towards democracies around the world, judging not by their parliament or government forms we should be concerned about the extremist demagogues formed as shadows even in the healthiest ones. Sports nationalism, religion, facades of economic development, etc. establish a binary face of electoral democracy before the people or voters who are confused over the prevailing intolerances across the globe. Bangladesh too remains in the list where being a democratic nation the people keep forgetting that democracy does not mean execution by elected self, but stern obligation of an elected leader towards his/her followers to keep things within rigorous constitutional bounds.

A government and its public administration can be complementary. That is the essence of what Woodrow Wilson said in 1887 when he presented the idea of "The dichotomy of politics and public administration". Governments, for their political legitimacy, are to ensure that public officials and their services are accessible to average citizens, service delivery is effective and the agencies and departments work in a well-coordinated manner. On the other hand, public servants are to ensure that the elected democratic leaders are capable of protecting the rights of citizens and mobilising resources to finance the provision for services. This is the ideal connotation of these concepts.

The writer is a Research Officer at Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). He can be reached at omar.tamim1993@gmail.com.

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