In the silos of bureaucrats, public interests are a trifle
To the uninitiated, the public interaction between our prime minister, chief executive of the state, and state officials may seem inexplicable at times. There appear to be two different wavelengths at which they function – one issuing edict after edict about what should or should not be done, and the other setting example after example of flagrant disregard for said edicts. Imagine being a boss and being disobeyed when you ask something of your team. Now imagine this at a state level. How that state still functions is a grim yet fascinating study in what one may call "perfect chaos."
The PM is naturally expected to share her thoughts on important issues from time to time. In her speeches, she also leaves instructions for state officials who are then expected to follow up on them. The public nature of these statements is significant, because it is meant to boost the confidence of citizens that their interests are being protected, but also to impress on public officials the seriousness of their job – something that an internal memo cannot do.
But every now and then, we come across cases where not only are such express instructions violated, sometimes frequently, but also, more bizarrely, such violations seem to be acceptable to the higher authorities, putting a question mark on the whole exercise as well as the state of institutional discipline in public service.
Take, for instance, the issue of food production. In recent months, the PM has repeatedly stressed on cultivating "every inch of land" to tackle the growing threat of a food crisis. One would have thought that this message was more for offices and institutions dealing with agricultural land than ordinary farmers, who are doing it anyway, for their own livelihood. But as a recent case shows, the message wasn't well-received. Reportedly, the Mongla Port Authority is going ahead with a plan to dump sand dredged from a river on 300 acres of arable land in Banisanta union of Khulna, despite having alternative options. In addition to harming the quality of soil, activists fear, this could lead to the displacement of at least 5,000 farmers. Such instances of degrading or repurposing arable and forested lands are quite common.
Or think of the often-unnecessary overseas training trips by government officials amid our shrinking foreign exchange reserves – despite a ban placed at the behest of the PM. In a virtual address recently, the PM, for the umpteenth time, also urged everyone to exercise austerity. But then, government officials, for the umpteenth time, showed that they were above such instructions. Reportedly, a group of six bureaucratic heavyweights are set to visit Germany for such a "training exercise." In the past months, we have repeatedly come across news of such trips, mostly by soon-to-retire or senior officials who have no way of using their costly training for the benefit of relevant projects. As an editorial by this daily memorably said, foreign trips are "no gifts to be doled out" to officials. Yet, this continues to happen.
Any call for austerity would be hollow if it doesn't extend to government officials, who are most responsible for squandering public money through corruption, mismanagement, and wasteful spending in various projects and through collusive deals. One may recall that, not long ago, the PM gave instructions on categorising public projects so that less important ones would be put on hold, which was hardly followed. Her repeated insistence on timely execution of projects was met with frustrating results.
The PM, mindful of the duties of public servants, also directed them to devote themselves to the welfare of citizens. "All of you [public servants] are getting salaries and perks from the money paid by the common people as taxes. So, you have to work for their welfare and in their interest," she said. That, sadly, remains unheeded. Instead, crime and corruption allegations against officials across the administrative spectrum abound. Hardly, if ever, do we see action matching such allegations.
These are but some randomly picked examples of violations of prime ministerial edicts by officers of her own administration. Imagine every time you felt frustrated or deceived after an instruction was given – or a commitment of justice made following certain tragedies – and never followed through. What this little exercise shows is how public servants, far from living up to their vaunted title, are becoming their own masters to serve parochial interests. This is only to be expected when democratic institutions are run on an exploit-first-serve-later basis.
And it is not just the PM (or PMO) who has been pitted against this mockery of institutional discipline. As we have seen countless times before, the judiciary is also subjected to such disregard. Imagine every time your heart was lifted by what you thought was pro-people, pro-nature judicial activism, only to be shattered by reckless violations of its instructions by the tin soldiers of the executive branch. Their lack of response despite risks of contempt of court rulings threatens to normalise what would be unthinkable in the public service of any other country. It will be a tiring exercise if we start to make a list of all the times such violations took place.
It is not without reason that politicians, of both ruling and opposition camps, deride the influence of bureaucrats. While the first sees their growing influence in the decision-making process, the latter sees their corrupting influence in how it is treated. In an ideal world, both would be speaking in the same language, and both would be right.
The question is: why is this display of "disobedience" still tolerated? This will require a separate op-ed. For now, let's just say that bureaucracy, when it comes to negotiating with power, has proven to be quite flexible. The only place where it held onto its age-old excuse for rigidity and inaction is its interaction with ordinary citizens, as the gruelling experience of service-seekers in all sectors makes it abundantly clear. State officials appear to consider themselves a class apart. Or "a different class of people" – as the attorney general recently told the apex court, while defending public servants' right to exemption from arrests without permission. It is this sense of entitlement to benefits and exemptions that makes them "more equal" among citizens.
Of course, public officials are not a homogenous group. Nor is it our intention to blackwash them in general. Like any professional group, they are a mixed bag. But what citizens – harassed or deprived every day by those behind our largely unaccountable public institutions – get from the latter's interaction with power is a peek into their own insignificance. In the bureaucratic silos and SOP-enabled corridors, public interests are anything but a priority.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.