BY MH Kawsar, Alimuzzaman Milon and Mosharaf Hossain Bhuiyan
Magistrate All Airport Bangladesh, a Facebook page where members of public write their complaints seeking attention from airport magistrates regarding any hassle or corruption they face at the airport, has grabbed attention of different national media. The simple Facebook page virtually connected people with civil servants; and the impact is huge as the harassment of service seeker and irregularity at the airport has declined, thanks to the improvement in the connectivity through the social media. These small initiatives, which may seem insignificant initially, are indeed taking this country to great changes.
Due to the government’s effort for digitalisation, information availability and connectivity has improved citizen services significantly.
Websites for all Deputy Commissioners’ (DC) Office and even Upazila Parishad has its own website where anyone can find important information and online citizen services. Even many of the government offices are using the power of social media to connect with people. This connectivity has an overall positive impact on governance and public administration.
Agricultural extension officers are now providing instant diagnosis and treatment for plant diseases based on information from social media. Many government offices introduced ‘grievance redress system’ following the instruction of National Integrity Strategy of Bangladesh – these are all examples of positive changes which are taking civil service and public administration to another level.
However, bureaucracy is still struggling to play the expected role in public policy making in Bangladesh. Bureaucracy can be seen as the most influential actor that determines the shape of most of the public policies since they are directly and indirectly involved with entire public policy process from drafting of policy to implementation and monitoring. Typically, as per the instruction from the Cabinet, relevant ministry is asked to form a taskforce headed by a senior bureaucrat to prepare draft policy that goes through a process involving different ministries and other stakeholders before getting approved. Similarly, the approved policies are also implemented by the street level bureaucrats of the field administration. Parliament is not vibrant as it is supposed to be while most of the elected politicians who serve in the ministries usually lack relevant specialised and technical knowledge. On the other hand, civil servants have an edge on the policy arena due to their experience and technical knowledge. So, it is evident that bureaucracy enjoys an unparalleled influence on the entire public policy process.
As responsibly comes with power, the bureaucracy is also the one that faces the music if the policies fail to give expected outcome. Questions are often raised whether bureaucracy is utilising this influence to shape better policy outcome. Many argue that bureaucracy is not playing the expected role in policy making due to politicisation, elitist mentality, inefficiency in implementation and lack of professionalism.
The elitist mentality often credited to the colonial legacy of the entire public administrative system that formed its foundation during the British rule for almost 200 years. The then institutions shaped bureaucracy intended to be the key instrument for governance and the mechanism for exercising the power by any means, even to suppress any protest or unwanted situation that may go against the British rule.
After the partition of the sub-content, Pakistani rulers also used this important state apparatus to take side of the powerful instead of being pro-people. Although the objectives and expectations from the bureaucracy have changed, some governing practices and structures still exist in the operational level. Studies claim that this ‘colonial imprint’ has kept the bureaucracy away from the mass public. Moreover, Bangladesh also went through a long periods of military and semi-military regimes which also negatively attributed the fundamental characteristics and role of the bureaucracy.
Recent studies identified political interference in bureaucratic functions as one of the alarming factor that disconnect bureaucracy from public. Although there is need for better alignment between the executive and the legislature, a certain level of independence is required for executives so that it can protect public interest and keep a balance among the state organs. Additionally, politicisation weakens the unity of the bureaucracy; consequently, different interest groups may influence bureaucracy towards certain policy prescription.
For effective policy making, it is important that bureaucracy has close liaison with the research institutions and civil society but Bangladeshi context tells a different story where lack of collaboration among the policy stakeholders is noticeable. It is to be noted that work of think tanks and NGOs are often glorified by the media and donors while many good initiatives of bureaucracy often go unnoticed. This creates an unwritten rivalry between bureaucracy and think tanks and media; and this unwanted sense of animosity may be avoided if the stakeholders understand that they are not competitor but collaborator.
It deserves appreciation that Bangladesh is trying to address the problems and promote evidence based policy making supported feedback from the relevant stakeholders.
Capacity building initiatives through opportunities for higher study and training are taken by the government in limited scale; this need to be strengthened as the training centre and specialised institutions for training and skills development suffer from numerous inadequacies which should be addressed with due importance; otherwise, the quality of policy inputs by bureaucracy in Bangladesh might be adversely affected.
Ironically, public policies are often formulated without involving and consulting public as feedback from general public rarely feeds into the policy processes due to ‘bureaucratic reluctance’ to engage with public, think tank, civil society organisations, and media. Needless to say, to understand social dynamics and the recipe for effective policy planning and implementation, the new public management approaches suggests that civil service should consistently stay connected with the public. Insights gained from better interaction with public and other stakeholders will empower public administration to shape public policy in a better way. The policy process can gain significantly if the relevant stakeholders are involved in the framing, implementation and evaluation of policies.
Policymakers and implementing agencies require thorough knowledge of various aspects of state affairs and the specific issues they deal with. Unfortunately, the collective technical and organisational capacity of public administration has eroded gradually that seriously hampered its potential to play proactive role in policymaking in Bangladesh.
It is a matter of hope that many of the young civil service officers are taking innovative approaches to make public administration people-friendly. They are injecting fresh blood in the system and thus challenging the conventional ways and approaches. Over the last few decades, the role of the government is changing from regular intervener to a referee; instead of playing the game, government sometimes need to ensure that a fair game is being played. Given the changing role and emerging challenges, it is vital that role of bureaucracy is well aligned with the present need.
* The article was first published in the Daily Sun on 18th June, 2017; available at http://www.daily-sun.com/printversion/details/234779/Strengthening-bureaucracy-for-public-policy
* The Writers are Masters’ level student at the Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka