Let a thousand state bureaucrats bloom

Recently I had the pleasure of hosting a first-of-its-kind event on state formation and bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is not a fashionable subject and my colleagues and I from the Public Affairs Research Institute were planning for a modest crowd.

We knew there might be some interest in the public event – a panel discussion facilitated by City Press editor Ferial Haffajee, with Ketso Gordhan (former Johannesburg city manager), Joel Netshitenzhe (the director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection) and two international guests, Eun-Jeun Lee (a South Korean scholar who works on China and Asia) and Eghosa Osaghae (a renowned scholar of the Nigerian state).

A few days before the event, it was clear something was up. We had dozens and dozens of RSVPs. Thomas Mokgale, the director of the University of the Witwatersrand's Graduate School of Public and Development Management, must have heard the urgency in my voice when I spoke to him, because he graciously offered us the school's auditorium. It was just as well, because we had a capacity crowd.

The purpose of the conference was to initiate a discussion about service delivery that would move the conversation away from received wisdoms and equally worn clichés. Nearly 20 years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, there are palpable signs of further deterioration in the basic functioning of government.

What, we asked, did effective administrations look like and what did it take to build them? The international literature had some surprising answers.

Charles Tilly, for example, the foremost scholar on how states emerged in Europe, argued that civilian administrations were the unexpected consequences of ­nothing less than war-making. In preparing for and in waging war, European states developed the capacity to raise taxes (to finance their wars) and to conscript and marshall tens of thousands of men into armies. These processes required large, effective administrations.

More recently, Francis Fukuyama has taken up this argument and given it an unexpected twist. He argues, convincingly, that the first modern state was not in fact a European one. More than a thousand years earlier, China was the first. He writes: "Already at the time of the Qin Dynasty, the first dynasty that unified China, China already developed a state that looked remarkably modern. The civil servants' examination was invented in due course. You had bureaucracy that was organised on rational lines and military forces in a large territory that were organised by unified rules. This creation of a modern state, created about 2 300 years ago, in 221BC, was a great historical achievement."

Are there other, less violent routes to state formation? Is it possible to develop effective administrations purposively? Fukuyama says the Chinese state was the first modern state because it developed a professional, dedicated class of bureaucrats – what the Chinese called mandarins. This was a group of people, selected on strictly meritocratic grounds, whose service to the institutions of the state trumped their private interests. This is why most bureaucrats in early China were eunuchs. In the Ottoman Empire, civil servants were usually ex-slaves. The Catholic Church at the time of Pope Gregory prohibited its priests from marrying or having sexual relations. This was not a divine interdiction: it was a secular one, designed to prevent priests and church officials from having familial interests in the dynastic politics of any kingdom.

What the Asian and European experience suggests is that the bureaucratic model is the royal road to building effective state institutions. In modern times, this idea is counterintuitive.

Conservative governments have railed against bureaucracy since at least the 1980s. Bureaucrats are apparently wasteful, inefficient and lacking in innovation. Better to get rid of them by replacing them with managers or, better still, by privatising government altogether. The idea that the route to better service delivery in South Africa (or anywhere) is by building bureaucracies seems laughable. Such has been the power of the Thatcherite revolution.

I recall my own surprise when, in the first year of my studies at Wits University in 1989, a government official participating in a debate in the Great Hall described himself as a bureaucrat. I remember wondering: Did he have no self-respect?

In South Africa after 1994, public-sector reform was strongly informed by this sentiment. One of the key features of the apartheid state, said Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, the minister of public service and administration in the first democratic government, was that it was bureaucratic. Hence the transformation of the state must not refer only to affirmative action, it must also include efforts to "de-bureaucratise" government.

This is why, today, we talk of the South African "public service". It is supposed to designate an administration that is no longer bureaucratic in nature.

One of the highlights of the conference was watching the expression of incredulity on the face of Eun-Jeun Lee. It was incredible to her that in post-apartheid South Africa there was no universal entry examination for public servants, that appointments were not based on merit, and nor were promotion and advancement linked to further success in impartial tests and examinations.

In South Africa, we have even taken measures to prevent a professional bureaucratic culture from emerging. Public servants have been allowed to do business with their own departments, encouraging them to pursue their private interests rather than public ones. This is beginning to change, though.

The so-called "developmental states" of Southeast Asia all stand on bureaucratic foundations. They did not have to go to war to generate effective administrations. The Chinese and later the Koreans had already mapped the way.

This is the extreme novelty of Professor Lee's work. She shows that European models of government, especially from the 18th century, borrowed from the Chinese model. The story is intriguing. Prussian state builders in the 1700s turned to Jesuit translations of classical Chinese texts to introduce aspects of the mandarin system. After the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japanese state builders borrowed from the Prussian experience, inadvertently introducing Chinese principles into modern Japanese government. And so it went on – long histories of exchange and ­borrowing and elaboration.

In South Africa, Lee's work pushes us to think beyond trite solutions to "service delivery" challenges. Can we really continue to accept that public administration is simply a colonial import? New work by the Public Affairs Research Institute, for example, shows that where government departments lapse is in basic administration. There is a short circuit between policy and strategy and operational design and engineering. No one wants to be a bureaucrat!

The South African debate about what it takes to improve the public service is weighed down by a prejudice. We continue to treat institutions with little respect, as though it is enough to hire people, give them a budget and an office and a vague mandate. What is needed today are well-designed administrations staffed by mandarins – that is, bureaucrats.

Maybe, when this happens, conferences on comparative perspectives on bureaucracy will draw the small, specialist audiences they probably should.

Ivor Chipkin is the director of the Public Affairs Research Institute, which organised the conference on state formation with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection.

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