Thursday, 30 July 2009

The bureaucratic disease

Outside the Box
John Mangun
Business Mirror

Once upon a time the United States government had a vast scrap yard in the middle of a desert. Congress said, “Someone may steal from it at night.” So they created a night-watchman position and hired a person for the job.

Then Congress said, “How does the watchman do his job without instructions?” So they created a planning department and hired two persons, one to write the instructions, and the other to do time studies.

Then Congress said, “How will we know the night watchman is doing the tasks correctly?” So they created a quality-control department and hired two people, one to do the studies and the other to write the reports.

Then Congress said, “How are these people going to get paid?” So they created the positions of a time-keeper and a payroll officer and hired two people.

Then Congress said, “Who will be accountable for all of these people?” So they created an administrative section and hired three people, an administrative officer, assistant administrative officer, and a legal secretary.

Then Congress said, “We have had this command in operation for one year and we are $18,000 over budget, we must cut back overall cost.”

So they fired the night watchman.

Bureaucracy has plagued the world since the first leader decided that some responsibility for government had to be put in hands other than his own. The ancient Egyptians had a far-reaching one, with the country divided into sections, administered by what amounted to “little pharaohs.” The pharaoh was, in theory, the only person who could own land, the only judge settling disputes, the only priest of the religion, and the only warrior. Everyone else was merely assistant to his power and rule. With the creation of the “little pharaohs” government bureaucracy was invented. Although the junior pharaohs supposedly answered only to their lord and master, they pretty much did whatever they wanted. And in turn, they created positions under them, increasing the great Egyptian bureaucracy.

As time passed, the rulers became dependent on the underlings to be able to administer their jobs. Although the bureaucracy was to stand as a support group for the ruler, it took on a life of its own, literally. The ruler might die, but the bureaucracy he created lived on and on. And like any other living thing, it gave birth to baby bureaucracies, thus increasing its influence and control of the government.

Government bureaucracies are, of course, created with the greatest and noblest of intentions. In 1997 for example, then US President Jimmy Carter signed into law the US Department of Energy (DOE). The mandate was to lessen US dependence on foreign-energy oil. It is now 32 years later and the budget for this “necessary” department is at $24.2 billion a year. They have 16,000 federal employees and approximately 100,000 contract employees. And the United States is more dependent on foreign-produced oil that ever before. The DOE assumed the responsibilities of the Federal Energy Administration, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Federal Power Commission, and programs of various other agencies.

The Department of Energy has moved into an area far removed from its original mandate. It now regulates, or tries to regulate anything and everything remotely connected with “energy,” including light bulbs and building insulation.

Government bureaucracies have an insatiable quest for more power and control. It is an inborn disease. And that is the problem with new government agencies within the bureaucracy.

They are supposed to rationalize and make more efficient the tasks of existing agencies. In fact, what usually happens is that they become an enormous bureaucratic organization overseeing several other large bureaucratic organizations. There is little increase in efficiency and productivity. And they take on a life of their own, spawning more and agencies, growing ever larger.

For the last five years, the administration has certified as urgent legislation creating the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). The purpose is to “be a single aggregator for all IT and communications government agencies.” The DICT is expected to integrate other agencies from the Department of Transportation and Communications and Department of Science and Technology.

The government has a Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) and it does a good job by all accounts. But is there a need to make it a permanent department of government? And yes, it would be permanent. CICT chief Ray Anthony Roxas-Chua: “The problem with the CICT just being a commission is that it can be easily demolished by the next administration.” That might be a good thing for all government department: non-permanency.

As much as I want the Philippines to move forward faster in developing our IT resources, I have this distrust of all government agencies. Someday, another future secretary of the DICT might just realize that pencils and ball pens are also part of information and communications technology, needing regulation and development.

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