Bloated bureaucracies in a nutshell
By Kaleem Omar
This may sound like something of a non-sequitur. How, you may well ask, can a bloated bureaucracy fit into a nutshell? Well, the answer is that it can't -- unless, of course, we're talking about some brand of giant-sized nut, one big enough to accommodate half the world, say, or a goodly chunk of it anyway.
Semantics aside, the fact of the matter is that when it comes to bloated bureaucracies, we, in Pakistan, can more than hold our own against other nations. Indeed, if ever somebody were to put together a Global Bureaucratisation Index, we would be right up there with the leaders near the top of the ladder.
Counting all the bits and pieces and digging into all the nooks and crannies of the bureaucratic corridors, we have close to 350,000 federal bureaucrats and several times that number at the provincial and local government levels, making a total of something like 2 million bureaucrats and giving us a bureaucrats-to-population ratio of 1 to 80. Which is practically the maximum ratio permitted under the Geneva Convention on Bureaucrats.
What is the cost of this gigantic bureaucracy and what effect does this cost have on the country's economy? No one has been able to work out this figure exactly, but my guess it that if we were able to somehow do away with the bureaucracy in one fell swoop, we could go from being a poor country to a rich country overnight. Indeed, minus our legions of bureaucrats, we might even become an aid-giving country instead of forever remaining an aid-receiving one.
Not that this is likely to happen anytime soon. Bureaucracies everywhere have a way of expanding inexorably, and Pakistan is no exception to this rule -- all the talk we hear from time to time about downsizing in government notwithstanding. To cite only one example of the way in which the bureaucracy keeps expanding inexorably: In the days when East Pakistan was still part of this country, we had 16 civil servants of federal-secretary rank. Today, we probably have 10 times that number.
Bloated bureaucracies not only cost far more than lean machines, they also tend to work far more slowly -- delaying everything in the process. The pace at which a file travels through the bureaucratic labyrinth can sometimes be so slow it would make a snail look like Speedy Gonzales.
The moral of story is that since we seem to be stuck with a bureaucracy that grows more bloated by the year, we might as well learn to make the best of it. With this in mind, here are some laws governing the complex subject of bureaucratics.
ACHESON'S RULE OF THE BUREAUCRACY: A memorandum is written not to inform the reader but to protect the writer. A Wapda general manager once wrote on a file: "A meeting may be held to consider this issue." If somebody had later questioned this, he would have said, "I didn't say that a meeting should be held; I only said that a meeting may be held."
WILSON'S LAW: A bureaucrat's rank is usually in inverse relation to the speed of his speech. That's why top-level bureaucrats tend to speak so slowly. It's called speaking with due deliberation, as opposed to the babbling of junior-level bureaucrats who tend to speak nineteen to the dozen, though whether this is due to their nervousness in the presence of their bosses or due to the fact that they have more to say than their bosses is a moot point.
MOSELEY'S LAW: Bureaucratic behaviour is based on the managerial myth that future organisational expansion will resolve past institutional incompetence. Parkinson said that people rise to the level of their own incompetence. By the same token, it could be said that organisations expand to the level of their institutional incompetence. In other words, the more incompetent an organisation, the more bloated it is likely to become. Look at the Pakistan Railways, for instance. A more incompetent organisation would be hard to find. Yet it's huge. Or could it be that it is so incompetent BECAUSE it is so huge?
ROBERTSON'S RULE OF BUREAUCRACY: The more directives you issue to solve a problem, the worse it gets. In the three-month period between June 1, 1998 and September 1, 1998, the State Bank of Pakistan issued some 35 directives relating to foreign currency bank accounts and foreign currency dealings. The net result of this plethora of directives (many of them contradicting each other) was to push up the market rate of the dollar from Rs 40 to more than Rs 65 at one point. If that was the idea behind the directives, it worked beautifully. If, on the other hand, the idea was to strengthen the rupee, the exercise was a miserable failure.
WELLER'S RULE FOR BUREAUCRATIC FUNDING: Never admit that your activity has sufficient staff, space, or budget. Above all, never admit that your organisation is, in fact, doing nothing productive and can therefore be done away with without any loss to the national exchequer. On the contrary, the less your organisation is doing, the busier it should appear to be. That way you have a strong case for getting your staff, office space and budget increased. "We're up to our necks in work these days" is the cry of all seasoned bureaucrats.
SANRIO'S RULE OF BUREAUCRATIC FUNDING: The first expenditure of new revenue made available to a bureaucratic agency will be used to expand the administration of the programme rather than the needs of the programme itself. That's why we don't only have assistant commissioners in this country; we also have extra assistant commissioners. What do extra assistant commissioners do? Well, presumably, they provide extra assistance to all the assistant commissioners.
SECOND LAW OF THE BUREAUCRACY: Any action for which there is no logical explanation will be deemed 'government policy.' But now you're going to ask, "What's the first law?" I would have thought that that would be obvious. The first law of the bureaucracy is: The boss is always right.
CHAPMAN'S LAW: Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted. Ghulam Ishaq Khan, for example, must have known all about this law, considering that he began his career as a low-level revenue official in the NWFP and ended up as president of the country.
OWENS'S LAW: If you are good, you will be assigned all the work. If you are really good, you will get out of it. There are some bureaucrats of my acquaintance who have made a whole career out of getting out of doing anything. And very successful bureaucrats they are, too.
LEVIN'S LAW: Following the rules will not get the job done. Corollary: Getting the job done is no excuse for not following the rules. Question: When is a rule not a rule? Answer: When the boss says it's not.
NIES'S LAW: The effort expended by a bureaucracy in defending any error is in direct proportion to the size of the error. No bureaucrat -- at least no bureaucrat worth his salt -- ever admits he's wrong. Any bureaucrat foolish enough to do so is clearly not top-level material and can expect to spend his days as extra assistant commissioner in Ahmedpur East or Bhai Pheroo.
PHILLIP'S LAW OF COMMITTEE PROCEDURE: The only changes that are easily adopted are changes for the worse. In other words, while there may not be a better way of doing something, there is always a WORSE way.
MAYNARD'S COMMENT: A committee is a cul-de-sac down which creative ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.