Friday, February 14, 2014

Who should run a country?

Two Provincial council elections are around the corner and voters have a choice of actresses, singers and other sundry characters, mostly unsavoury to choose from. I am wondering if it is even worth voting at all.

Should there be some sort of 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. This I will leave to others interested in governance to lobby for; it is a measure that can do some good in the short run.

This post is not about blacklisting, it is about examining the deeper question of who should really run a country. It is a serious business and should never, I repeat never, be left in the hands of politicians.

Since we are so enthralled with China these days it is only appropriate that we take a leaf from the book of governance that the Chinese developed.

The people who should really be running a country is its civil service. The politicians are merely figureheads who will suggest broad policies; it should be left to the civil servants to filter, refine and administer policies. I will come to this  a bit later but first lets be clear on the requirements for an effective service.

When I speak of a civil servant I do not refer to 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 rigourous entrance exam. This ensures that only bright, intelligent people are brought in to the service. This is then followed by a period of internship where they learn the practical aspects of administration by working alongside senior colleagues. It is only then that they will be fit for the real administrative work in running a country.

Thus, the people we entrust with administration will have a minimum of three years of university study and two years of practical experience, even before they start real work. Remember that we have selected the best of the graduates (based on their grades) and subjected them to a further rigourous examination so we are reasonably certain that we are working with intelligent people whose minds have been trained to think. We have then invested a further two years in on-the-job training, which means by the end of a five year process we have the basic material with which we may hope to build a system of administration with some degree of success. 

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

Yet electoral democracy calls for persons to be elected by popular ballot and the field should be open to all. How can this be reconciled to what I have just said?

The question is valid and merits a closer examination of the system of government. The system of administration will be broken into various departments (finance, local government, agriculture, trade etc) depending on the specific needs of the country. Each of these departments is headed by a senior civil servant who is the permanent secretary to the department. He (or she) is the person who is ultimately responsible for all the administrative work of the department.  His appointment is permanent; he cannot be removed by a politician or a minister; his appointment, transfers, pay and all other matters are handled by an independent civil service commission.

It is the permanent secretary who runs the show but although he is extremely powerful he is not unaccountable  - he is accountable to parliament, through the relevant minister. Therefore, although the civil servant, though well qualified and experienced must also lend an ear to popular concern, as expressed by the minister concerned.

The minister has no real power but has influence, so the 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 politician inexperienced and idealistic will demand things that sound nice but which 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 role to play.  Belgium ran quite successfully for a better part of two years without a proper government (ie politicians)  and could have carried on for much longer with no serious difficulty; its administration functioning properly under its civil service.  

The ideas I propose 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 only around a 120,000 people were involved  in running the British Empire, although only 4,000 were directly involved. Sri Lanka today boasts 1.2m in public service, about 500,000 of who are in the military, leaving about 700,000 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 the irrepressible politician, who hold the reins of power. Unless checks are introduced, we can only close our eyes and hold on tight and hope that the descent will not be too bumpy.


Anonymous said...

An independent civil service run by permanent secretaries who cannot be removed by the politicians is absolutely essential to regain freedoms gradually lost since the end of British rule.

The elected ruling class - without party bias - had reduced the 'public servants' into 'rulers servants', who are tied to trees and made to kneel before them.

They have to be given the dignity and freedom to act 'according to the rule of law' without fear of reprisals in order to re-establish lost freedoms, robbed from citizens by the elected ruling class.

sbarrkum said...

The Ceylon Civil Service is now the Sri Lanka Administrative Service

You need a degree plus pass an exam to become an Assistant Gov Agent (AGA). I think the post is called something else now.

Jack Point said...

Yes, Sbarrkum, there is something called an administrative service the successor to the CCS but this is a far cry from the old CCS.

Some details here: