OPINION: The inexorable rise of bureaucracies everywhere

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Bureaucracies Source: Google Images

SOME readers will recall that the first rather timid parliamentary inquiry into Nkandla’s financing concluded that civil servants fouled up. It was they who let contractors run away with taxpayers’ money.

That some hapless civil servants were blamed is remarkable, whether or not (I do not recall) they were actually punished, because bureaucrats everywhere are experts in shifting blame.

The reason for the inquiry was that Nkandla is a private home. If it had been an army barracks the overspend would probably never have seen the light of day. The reason is that without oversight by competent elected politicians, civil servants will always spend taxpayers’ money like drunken sailors.  Such elected officials are rarer than hens’ teeth. Bent civil servants proliferate when they owe their positions to politicians and feel beholden to, or are in awe of, their benefactors.

All politicians and bureaucrats get a kick out of spending other people’s money. In Britain, under successive socialist Labour governments, there were many examples of schemes overseen by civil servants where the budgets were thrown out of the window.

At Nkandla we appear to have had one relatively minor in retrospect example of civil servants taking their eyes off the ball and letting contractors ignore contracted prices.

Incompetence goes with any bureaucracy. To quote Karl Marx (who got it right for once) “bureaucracy is a circle from which one cannot escape…. The top (of the hierarchy) …. entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general, and so all are mutually deceived.”

In other words, no bureaucrat (public or private) is responsible for anything, and the opportunities for buck-passing and bribery are infinite, Blaming the briber rather than the recipient is always a way out.

It was not always thus. For example, it used to take passing stringent examinations to get into the British Civil Service. Only the best brains passed. In return, they joined an elite. They accepted smaller salaries than those in the private sector, but they were unlikely to lose their jobs, barring gross indecency. An index-linked pension was the cherry on top.

Alas this is no longer the case. The civil services in country after country have expanded. Rather than being a calling attracting an elite wishing to serving the public, they have been used by politicians for nepotism and patronage.

Even in the US the civil service has ballooned since 1945. The separation of powers enshrined in the US Constitution has been circumvented by federal government agencies that use their regulatory powers to the maximum extent, in many cases to an extent never intended by the legislatures.

An arch example of regulatory excess is the US Environment Protect Agency (EPA). It now boasts some 70 000 employees (paid by the taxpayer). Some may think that is a good thing.

A large bureaucracy such as we now have, was not always a pre-requisite for governing. When the British ruled India, the number of civil servants never exceeded an elite 1 200. This small number provided services to 200 million people. The rule they represented put an end to the piratical early days of Clive and other Nabobs. These dedicated men, often graduates of Cambridge or Oxford, could not be bribed. They accepted low pay because they regarded public service as a calling. They sacrificed their health and often their lives to this ideal.

Another example of a small public service, and many years before the British Empire took shape, is the Chinese Empire under the Han dynasty which created a Mandarin class to manage the Chinese state. It took 30 years to prepare for the eight entrance examinations.  Many applicants dropped out from sheer exhaustion. Those who made it were men of ability and virtue.

By the way, once in, the penalty for corruption was death.

Standards are no longer so high in modern bureaucracies. Truth be told the Chinese system became corrupt in the end. In modern civil services, even in the developed world, patronage is often rampant, along with nepotism, bribery and tender manipulation. It is worse in some countries and better in others. The phenomenon is well known, and of course it is present at times in the private sector.

However, in large organizations in the private sector, action is taken. Bureaucracies that have grown fat are periodically are trimmed. Such slimming rarely happens to civil services. On the contrary, civil services tend to grow at an average of 5 % a year. The hiring process lumbers on. The top people, who want to stay powerful, only hire incompetents who are no threat to their own positions. Those below them do the same. Ergo, more and more incompetents come aboard, and so on ad infinitum until the whole edifice is, well, useless.

This pattern gave birth to Norman Parkinson’s Peter Principle, which says that in a bureaucracy, people tend to be promoted to their level of incompetence. Do well at one job, and get promoted. Do well again, and take a further step up the ladder – up, and up, until finally the job is too much for the incumbent.

We have a great example of bureaucratic growth. President Mbeki’s administration had 28 ministers. His successor had 35 ministers and 37 deputies. The bill for their salaries rose by almost 150% in ten years according to local economists.

Meanwhile the number of South African civil servants rose by a 30% over the same period (2005 -2012).

Bloated bureaucracies can be cured. The Swedes provide a fine example. When the overmanned Brown Bovery company was taken over by a smaller Swedish firm, the first thing the new Swedish MD did was cull its bureaucracy.

He told the bloated staff complement that the new company would not be run “like a government” nor administered from a central head office. First to feel the pinch was the headquarters. Everyone in it was given three months to find a “real job” in the company. More than 3 000 failed to do so. They were fired.

By replacing a top-heavy bureaucratic structure with 1 000 local offices, quick decisions could be made, and the new ASEA Brown Bovery, no longer haemorrhaged money. It rapidly began earning annual profits in the billions.

Game, set, and match to private business and the profit motive.

As it is, our once professional civil service, already subverted by the previous government, is still expanding, soaking up our taxes and risking becoming little more than voting fodder.