A ‘missing link’ in our saga of corruption is the role played by our bureaucrats especially “street level bureaucrats”. The term “Street Level Bureaucrat” is used by Michael Lipsky, a renowned professor of social policy at Georgetown University (USA). Lipsky describes street-level bureaucrats as frontline workers such as Social Work professionals who are employed by government agencies that deliver services to members of specified client groups. Quite often the typical bureaucrat is forced to consider the views of a client who will argue that the urgency of their needs should take precedence over the logic of any administrative procedure and requirements.
These procedures and requirements are likely to play a significant role in the essential elements of an implied important public policy. To trade off ‘public policy’ and favour the client’s urgency for food, etc and especially if the impact of the decision is likely to impact on children and/or the aged can be very disturbing; or as Lipsky put it “rationing resources to screening and routinizing clients” undermine the logic of disciplined and logical public policy.
The bottom line of Lipsky’s argument is that the street level bureaucrats in the US tend to take a conservative stand when individualised decisions apply to members of the client community. Furthermore, one should not exclude the possibility that the monetary benefit that should go to the client may be less if the decision to bypass a procedural requirement is implemented; “better food now than later.” In most developed countries one expects members of the bureaucracy to follow government policy. Yet, when the bureaucrat deviates from public policy there is usually little negative impact on the client.
In Bangladesh, the professional bureaucrats live in a very different world. Firstly, they are mostly underpaid which does not cancel out that most of them do not have much work to do. It is fair to say that the country’s civil service reflects of form of welfare assistance; the lower the level of the staff, the more likely that their “work” reflects a form of assistance to the needy. One should therefore expect that this category of “street level bureaucrat” would seek to find a response to their job. They would be ‘grateful’ to the government for keeping their jobs and therefore serve the public with integrity.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. They behave as if they are “little Mughals” waiting to be served by the public! This is not unique to Bangladesh. The practice is common in other poor countries. In one predominantly Christian island of the Caribbean the practice of having to pay a government employee for legitimate free service is signalled by using the letters “YMCA” which is the acronym for an international organisation that is known as the Young Men’s Christian Association and in government employee-citizen relations means You Must Come Across – a form of “cool language” that means “no pay, no service.”!
Bangladesh newspapers publish story after story how people are being ripped off when they visit a government office seeking a service. Remember that our education minister had to set up a ‘sealed complain box’ in the education directorate to curb the corrupt practices of the employees. Similar measures were also ordered by the recently appointed communication minister who saw evidence of ‘helping hands’ while visiting BRTA. The most conspicuous was a report published by daily Prothom Alo describing a parallel set of office arrangements for police officers in local police stations. It was reported that police officers appointed their own ‘aides’ who negotiate with clients on behalf of the officers! All these claims have been crystallised by a recent Transparency International report which claimed that about two third of persons visiting government offices were forced to pay bureaucrats for a service.
The question remains, why is corruption so rampant among the government bureaucracy in general and the service sector in particular? The conventional wisdom points at the low salary structure of government employees. Employees who suffer from low income and struggle to obtain the basic necessities are likely to develop certain dishonest practices. However, if this line of argument is true, then every working citizen who strives for his/her everyday survival is bound to be a delinquent. Since this is not the case, one prime reason of corruption is the nexus that exists between the practice of politics and government bureaucracy.
We are aware of the process how political connection brings positional benefits to a certain segment of bureaucrats. Political linkage also helps gain illegal wealth. During the period of the military regimes certain senior bureaucrats used their political connection to amass huge amount of wealth. A prime example was the case of the secretary of power ministry who was convicted of amassing illegal wealth. One could also remember all those top bureaucrats who confessed before the “Truth Commission” commissioned by the military-controlled caretaker government. When a corrupt individual becomes a top executive of a government department, we need not to be rocket scientist to anticipate how the lower order of the rank-and-file would operate under him.
Though mainstream bureaucrats are prohibited by the law to demonstrate their affinity to politics (at least in public), street level bureaucrats do not care much about any legal barrier. Their political connection is explicit and is often used for malicious ends. The most common way how street level bureaucrats legitimate their illegal actions is through the collective bargaining agency (CBA).
Over the last two decades, the nature of CBA has been transformed from protecting employees’ interest to a self-serving club of CBA leaders. Perhaps, the way that many of our CBA leaders use their collective power to serve their own interests is unique in the world. These so-called leaders line themselves up behind the ministers in political meetings and often express their readiness for supreme sacrifices (!) for the party in power.
When a new political government is sworn in the leaders just change their ‘Kibla’ and reiterate the same promise for the new government. This new alignment is not to serve the interest of the workers but to serve themselves. There are overwhelming evidences to conclude that many CBA leaders have become self-serving and not only violate their service regulations but also shamelessly use the power of the agency to rob public resources.
Despite the fact that political connection facilitates corruption, yet politics cannot be the sole cause of corruption. There are other factors that are more or less contributing to the process of corruption. Many global and local forces have been unleashed that has transformed the old fabric of the society to a new one. Nowadays, we are the integral part of ‘metropolitan mind’ and ‘money economy’ where consumption especially reckless consumption is the standard marker of social status. We want to consume everything within and beyond our capacity and would like to secure some for our offspring.
At the societal level, this overarching demand has destabilised the base of the old social control which was mainly constitutive of honesty, sincerity and high ethics. At the personal and family levels an increasing pressure for consumption has gradually decayed the ‘old morale’ and replaced that inherent system with ‘greed’ and ‘self-indulgence’. With the absence of any role model in our immediate matrix including family, schools, neighbourhood, and work place, as well as observing the triumphs of corrupts, we either teach our young children or other members to accept “win by any means.” This new reality is the one of the driving forces of corruption.
Another important factor is the acceptance of corruption by the society at large. The corrupt individual was once contemplated as ‘unacceptable’ to everyone. This notion has shifted and we are now ready to recognise some forms of corruption as a model of success. There are also attempts by corrupt individuals to buy out everyone or everything by their illegal wealth. In a poverty-ridden Bangladesh, it is not too hard to buy people or the institution. When the political machine and state institutions are patrons of corruption, buying out or suppressing the ‘honest’ ones is not a hard job.
This is the appropriate time we stand up against the corrupt bureaucracy especially against these corrupt street level bureaucrats. We have a small country with an unnecessary large bureaucracy. There are hundreds of positions in government offices that are not well-defined and hard to justify why they exist. For instance, many government offices have a position called ‘type-writer/computer operator’. Other than few important offices (such as court system) it is hard to justify why such positions are relevant in serving public. One might argue that our middle-range bureaucrats are not in the ‘practice’ of typing. This ‘colonial mindset’ of bureaucrats needs to be replaced with service-oriented mindset. Remember, some of these positions are so intertwined with corruption that only elimination of these positions could ensure a better service.
Unfortunately, until we install an efficient mechanism of accountability by overhauling the bureaucracy, any attempts to curb corruption would bring least desired outcome. The current government expressed its intention to overhaul the bureaucracy, but as the time passes we see “all quiet in reform form”.
Hasan Reza holds a faculty position at Shah Jalal University of Science and Technology, and is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, USA.