As I write this column in Oslo on Tuesday evening, millions of Malawians have participated in a much-anticipated election process, the outcome of which promises to be exciting in the days and weeks ahead.
What is clear is that whoever wins must work closely with the bureaucracy that was not up for election.
The successful formulation and implementation of public policy in any country requires the presence of a well-functioning administrative apparatus. A major challenge in many low-income country settings is entrenched patrimonialism and nepotism, which hinders merit-based recruitment of competent civil servants.
Addressing this challenge requires a strong political commitment to undertake major (and often unpopular) administrative reforms that risk being opposed by powerful actors, including bureaucrats who fear the loss of their privileged positions.
In large parts of the world, bureaucrats complain of low salaries and increased political interference in administrative activities which, they claim, undermines bureaucratic initiative and neutrality, and is a major source of demotivation in the civil service. Politicians are accused of fostering a culture of clientelism with the aim of appeasing their supporters and loyalists, who may be granted special privileges and access to a disproportionate share of government benefits.
And bureaucrats who refuse to bend the rules in favour of their political masters may risk administrative transfers to unattractive posts far from urban centres (so-called “punishment postings” or “thankless postings”) and delays in receiving promotions. However, this is not just a one-way process.
Bureaucrats also seek favours from politicians in the hope of furthering their careers by being posted to so-called “wet posts” (attractive ministries with large budgets).
Civil servants most likely to be demotivated include officers who are disliked by the political leadership (either those who are seen to be loyal to a rival politician or party, or a person who is perceived to be incorruptible); and those without ‘political clout’, i.e. officers who are politically not well-connected and thus cannot influence their posting.
And bureaucrats who have been ‘victimised’ by the ruling party typically long for a change of government, the rationale being that with new ministers at the helm, those marginalised or punished by the previous regime would be suitably rewarded with prized postings in larger (more urban) districts or in the capital city.
The growth of an unholy nexus between a number of corrupt politicians, private contractors and disloyal bureaucrats contributes to an enormous wastage of public resources and continued difficulties in implementing development programmes. But ‘political interference’ can also have a positive influence on public policy.
Without sustained political support, bureaucrats tend to implement ad hoc policies, without being in a position to radically reform projects, programmes and policies with inherent, and often well-known, shortcomings.