Bureaucrats: they are dead at 30 and buried at 60. They are like custard pies; you can't nail them to a wall. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)
I have just been reading Andrew Alderson's graphic account of his time in Basra. (Bankrolling Basra) It describes how, from a standing start, he established an organisation which took over the roll of the defunct southern branch of the Iraqi Central Bank. Under Saddam, Iraq was run Soviet fashion. All economic activity was owned by the state and wages were paid out of central funds. When the state operations were abruptly ended by his overthrow, there was no money to pay the workers. This led to a simmering resentment which threatened security. Alderson, a merchant banker and volunteer member of the Territorial Army, was given the job of kick-starting the economy because of his financial background. He re-established a flow of funds to pay wages to get vital utilities and social services working again. Over the months, he built an international team of experts in each field who helped Iraqi managers restart operations under the interim regime.
Less directive and "colonial"
As the time for the handover of power approached, civil servants in London decided that the organisation Alderson had built should be replaced by a transitional authority which would be less directive and "colonial". This decision took no account of the inexperience of Iraqi managers in operating without central control. The civil servants sent over to implement the new approach turned up with no understanding of the situation on the ground, of what had been achieved, or why it had been tackled in the way it had.
Alderson returned from his meeting with them deeply frustrated. A colleague who was on the receiving end of his vitriolic description of what had passed replied 'Andrew be reasonable, these guys don't get out of bed each morning and say "right, how can I fuck things up today?"'.
Challenge my prejudice
Followers of this blog will understand that this is a comment I have to take seriously because it reflects pretty closely what I think about bureaucrats in general, and civil servants in particular. And put that way, it requires careful reflection because it is a forceful challenge to my prejudice.
So let's get down to it. Bureaucrats have power. They have been put in a position from which they can MAKE other people do what they want, or STOP them from making their own choices. This power is circumscribed by two types of limitation:
Legislation is made by politicians, who make laws and institute policies to achieve goals, move society in chosen directions, or control people. (Though bureaucrats do have a lot of power over how legislation should be interpreted.) Procedure is the method used by bureaucratic institutions to ensure that individual civil servants are pulling in the same direction and treating the citizens over whom they exercise power fairly. Procedure is also there to ensure that money spent is properly accounted for, and that acts carried out by bureaucrats of all types are consistent with policy.
Bramble thicket of bureaucracy
So what can go wrong? Kafka, in The Castle and The Trial graphically describes the way that bureaucracy can turn itself into a bramble thicket which can catch the unwary citizen and not let him go. Procedures are quickly set up by different departments. They can be impenetrable to the uninitiated and may be contradictory. The 1980s television series, Yes Minister, lampooned the way that civil servants ran rings round a fictional minister and tied him in knots of self-contradiction. Joseph Heller coined the phrase Catch 22 to crystallise the way that, by fulfilling one requirement, the unwary citizen can be caught by another – conflicting one.
In this maze of rules and regulations the bureaucrat is in a position to impede the citizen with procedural requirements, forms to complete and offices to visit. The effect can be stifling.
Proving black is white
Bureaucrats are also skilled at generating whole vocabularies of jargon and acronyms which make it easy for them to obscure their true motives and objectives. Above all, through a combination of ever shifting jargon and weasel words, it becomes possible to prove that black is white and white is black, a carefully-honed skill which can be a double-edged sword for their political masters. Civil servants can either use it to protect ministers or a threat to keep them in their place.
One of the reasons for the economic stagnation of India and South and Central America up to the 1980s was the overweening power of bureaucracy. In India's case, the curbing of bureaucratic power has led to an extraordinary economic resurgence. This is less evident in South America where bureaucratic interference is a deliberate policy. It helps political oligarchies retain power and ensures that competition does not threaten their lucrative monopolies.
Pressure cooker of hierarchies
This takes us back to what bureaucrats say to themselves when they get out of bed in the morning. They live in a pressure cooker of hierarchies, jealousies, office politics and backbiting. But, at the higher echelons, they don't have to worry about their jobs or pensions. They don't have to produce anything that anyone else wants. (The rest of us do because, ultimately, our wages our paid because the organisations for whom we work make or provide things that people are willing to pay for, whereas civil servants' wages are paid out of taxes that no one wants to pay.) So what can they do? Top civil servants can make their jobs bigger and more important by making more work for themselves or by taking over colleagues' portfolios. That type of activity provided a lot of material for Yes Minister. And, of course, they can boss people about; it is rare that they have to face the consequences of any damage they do.
So if I allow myself to be totally cynical, I could speculate that they do ask themselves "how can I fuck things up today?" Why? Because they have the power, because they don't have to face the consequences, and because they operate in a parallel world where incomes are always secure and they have nothing better to do. But that, I am sure, is unfair.
Battle in the corridors of power
So let's return to Basra. The internal battle in the corridors of power in Whitehall was lost by the Foreign Office (FO) – just watch the acronyms flow – and won by the Department for International Development (DFID). It was the DFID civil servants that arrived in Iraq with news that the structures set up to regenerate the economy of Southern Iraq were "colonial" in their approach. Instead they were to be replaced by an "aid" structure. And the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was to be replaced by a Transitional Advisory Team (TAT).
Alderson had built up the CPA South team and had battled for money to rebuild some of the State Owned Organisations (SOE). The central plan had been either to let these businesses wither and die or – more fancifully – to sell them on the international financial market. The team, realising that these SOEs were essential to the economy had had a measure of success in keeping them going, had kept people in jobs and reducing discontent.
Tight financial control
This was achieved because, with his commercial background, he was able to recruit specialists and keep a tight financial control. His organisation was effectively in charge of ensuring that the money was being channelled and spent properly by his own team and by others whose budget he oversaw. At the same time, the Iraqi managements were helped to develop their own decision making and financial management skills.
Despite the relative success of this approach in difficult and deteriorating circumstances, Whitehall decided that it was inappropriate and that instead a cadre of "nation-building specialists" should be brought in to "help existing government institutions take charge". But in post Saddam Iraq, there were no functioning institutions and the new ministries were too weak to undertake the responsibility.
Frightening example of misplaced priorities
Still, the policy had to be implemented and, in a frightening example of misplaced priorities, a woman was sent out from Scotland to prepare a report on gender issues. And this at a time when dangerous riots, a worsening security situation, crippling economic problems, and a shortage of staff were making it difficult to provide adequate health, education, water, power and finance services.
Rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic
The organisations which were trying to tackle these issues were dismantled. In their place, consultants – "experts in institutional capacity building" – were appointed. They arrived in Basra and interviewed members of the departing team and asked each of them three questions:
- what do you do?
- what should we do?
- do you want a job?
The civil servants who came up with this idea may not have asked themselves "how can I fuck things up today?" but they might as well have done. Something had to change, so they decided to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.