Politicians or technocrats?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

A layer of technocrats working with ministers can improve policy.

Sri Lanka’s long-suffering citizens face yet another election this month. Many are disappointed by the performance of the current government. The dreary parade of candidates for the upcoming election, actresses, singers and other sundry characters (mostly unsavoury), is uninspiring.

People yearn for technocrats, people with knowledge and skills, to come in and clean the house (similar to Plato’s ideal of a Philosopher King); but how can this be achieved?

Is the solution ‘qualifying criteria’ for politicians? The problem with electoral democracy is that such a thing is not possible; it would be seen as inherently unfair. Other countries also have their share of lunatics in the fray: South Korea created a blacklist to filter unsuitable candidates, an idea that is worth exploring, but a better solution is to have a layer of technocrats below the elected politicians. Technocracy should be in charge of day-to-day administration, to advise and guide politicians as to good, workable policy, and then implement it impartially. This is an attractive idea, but is it only wishful thinking? No; and in fact, independent Ceylon did in fact have this in the form of Civil Service, a body of people famed for intellect, independence and probity.

When we refer to a civil servant, it is not a crony who owes his appointment to some political master. A civil servant should be one selected on the basis of excellent academic credentials and a rigorous entrance exam. This ensures that only bright and intelligent people are brought into the service. This is then followed by a two-year period of internship (that was called a “cadetship”), where they learn the practical aspects of administration by working alongside senior colleagues. It is only after this process that they will be fit for the real administrative work in running a country.

Thus, the people entrusted with administration will have a minimum of three years of university study and two years of practical experience even before they start real work. Note that only the best of the graduates (based on their grades) were originally selected and subjected to a further rigorous examination, so there is reasonable certainty that the basic intake is of intelligent people whose minds have been trained to think. Invested with a further two years of on-the-job training, by the end of a total process of five years, we have the basic material on which an efficient system of administration may be built.

With no entry qualifications, minimal or zero education, and only the ability to appeal to the basest of popular sentiment, the politician, unchecked, is the most dangerous creature in which to vest the reins of power.

A civil servant should be one selected on the basis of excellent academic credentials and a rigorous entrance exam. This ensures that only bright and intelligent people are brought into the service

Yet, electoral democracy calls for persons to be elected by popular ballot, and the field should be open to all. How can these be reconciled? The technocrat must guide the politician, advise him (or her) on the options available and check their wildest impulses. But, if this is to work, the technocrat must not be beholden to the politician. The civil service must be independent and, most importantly, politically neutral.

Independence is ensured if politicians have no say in the appointment, dismissal, promotion, transfer, pay or other matters, which must be in the hands of an independent Civil Service Commission. The service must also be politically neutral and serve governments of different political hues equally. If the service is seen as impartial, then politicians have less incentive to interfere, contributing to its independence.

Civil servants should not engage in any political activity: they must not campaign for or against any party, nor misuse state resources or power for partisan purposes; nor should they shy away from carrying out their duties when a matter is politically controversial. Politicians have democratic legitimacy, while civil servants, as unelected officials, do not. Political neutrality is necessary to bring democratic legitimacy to technocrats, the scholar mandarins who influence and implement policy.

Politicians suggest broad policies; civil servants need to advise ministers as to how these can be implemented in a workable manner. Civil servants need to examine all options: Martin Donnelly, a senior UK civil servant, stated that civil servants should avoid having to answer the question “Why wasn’t I told about this?” by disclosing all potential outcomes that might take place at the outset.

He went on to say that civil servants should also “offer some advice that is not accepted to ensure a genuine fair hearing of all options that are within a government’s political direction”. If politicians’ views are not subject to scrutiny, they may miss the opportunity to consider changing them.

Politicians generally view things on a shorter time horizon; permanent civil servants, who have to work and live with the consequences of policy in the long term, naturally take a much more longer term view. Politicians want to make the big announcement at the right time, while civil servants are more apt to take the necessary time to examine all options, resource constraints and the scale of risks, even if that means taking longer. Such a system allows collective and personal experience to be drawn and built upon, safe policy debates to occur, and experts to be brought in for shorter or longer periods.

The minister does not have unbridled power, so hasty promises made at election time cannot be implemented ad-hoc: they are refined and adjusted in keeping with the constitution, the law and practical considerations. It is through this process that promises are turned into practical policy. Often, the relationship between the two will be tense; the inexperienced and idealistic politician will demand things that sound nice but may be unfair to some citizens (people outside his particular constituency), too expensive, unsustainable or otherwise impractical.

The comedy ‘Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister’ is based on the tension between the well-meaning but bumbling minister and the crafty permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Although the comedy portrays Sir Humphrey as being devious, he is performing a vital function in checking and tempering the enthusiasm of the minister.

The education, training and experience of the civil servant is thus essential in tempering policy. The politician is involved only at the larger policy level, and unless there are pressing problems to be resolved, has little to do with routine administration.

Belgium ran quite successfully for a better part of two years without a proper government (i.e. politicians), and could have carried on for much longer with no serious difficulty; its administration was functioning properly under its civil service.

Technocracy should be in charge of day-to-day administration, to advise and guide politicians as to good, workable policy, and then implement it impartially

These ideas are far from new or radical. They were first practised by the imperial Chinese, with the first formal exams being introduced in around 605AD. This was refined and expanded over a period of 1,300 years, until 1905. These bureaucrats, the Mandarins, were the scholar officials who ran the Chinese empire, at one time the greatest in the world. This system was adopted and further refined by the British, who in turn ran their empire on these lines. It is estimated that around 120,000 people were involved in running the British Empire, although only 4,000 were directly involved. Sri Lanka today boasts 1.3 million in public service, about 500,000 of who are in the military, leaving about 800,000 to run the civil administration.

It is also the system that was used in independent Ceylon, until 1962, when short-sighted politicians facing difficulties with implementing their various hare-brained schemes decided to abolish the civil service, starting the rot that leaves citizens today wondering whether to even cast their vote at all.

An important check on the politicians was removed; so now it is irrepressible politicians who hold the reins of power.

What is needed to try and restore this system? It is very difficult, but the first step would be the creation of a completely independent Public Services Commission, which would be responsible for the appointment, transfers and
promotion of all public servants.

Ministers should no longer control the fate of public servants.

The next step would be to change mindsets: Instil the values of the civil service code through training. A basic training to instil the core values of honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity should be carried out throughout the service. This must be followed up by more specific work to address skills gaps.

In general, training must focus more on senior ranks, if they are to set and demand higher standards of work from juniors.

Any policy or programme is only as good as its implementation. Given the abysmal quality of politicians, even getting policies right is a problem. Working to build an independent technocracy is essential to improve policymaking and its implementation.

Recreating something that was built over a century, but destroyed within a couple of decades, will not be easy, but it’s the only way forward. Leave it to degenerate further and we will be left with a situation where it grinds to a complete halt, under its own sloth and inertia.