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Five assumptions about bureaucracies that our data dispute

Daniel Walker's picture
Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.

In preparation for our upcoming conference – Innovating Bureaucracy (Nov 8-9; register here) – we thought it would be interesting to look across the globe at how the public sector may affirm or challenge our expectations. What characteristics do we most often associate with public sector bureaucracies? Perhaps we might think that they grow larger the older they become, or that bureaucrats are mostly older men with average educations.

Using new data on the public sector, we can begin to challenge some of these assumptions. The data comes from the World Bank’s new Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators (WWBI) (to be published 2018). This product of the Bureaucracy Lab tracks public/private wage differentials, relative wages across government jobs, demographic characteristics of the workforce, public/private shares in total, and wage employment. Let’s look at five commonly held beliefs about bureaucracies and see how they hold up in the data.

1: Bureaucrats are old
Although we may think of bureaucrats as a largely entrenched “old guard”,  the dataset shows otherwise. In fact, the mean age of public sector employees is a mere 41 years old, just 5 years older than the private sector average (36).
In the developing world, public sector workers are actually younger, on average, than public servants in high-income countries. For example, in Ethiopia, public servants are generally around 35 years old, while their equivalents in the US are over 44 years old. Overall, lower-income public servants are about 2 years younger across the globe.

2: Older bureaucracies are massive
Older bureaucracies are often characterized as bloated. However, the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators show that public sectors consistently account for about 28% of wage or salaried employment, on average, and about 16% of total employment. These trends hold across income level. Low- and high-income countries are not significantly different when it comes to the size of their bureaucracies as a share of wage employment. For instance, in Tanzania, the share of public sector workers—28.8%—is practically equivalent to the United Kingdom.
3: Bureaucracies are Boys’ Clubs
Another common assumption is that bureaucratic professions are gender-biased toward men. Although the data does support this hypothesis to some degree, there are some counterintuitive findings.

Globally, only about 43% of public servants are women, on average, and this percentage is even lower in low-income countries: about 29%.

Figure 1: Share of female public sector workers

However, when we look at trends of women already in the workforce, it is encouraging that a third of women consistently choose public service, and this applies across income and regional lines.

Figure 2: Share of working women who choose the public sector

Even more encouraging is that these rates are higher in the Middle East (45%) and South Asia (38%) where gender diversity has been a challenge. These rates suggest that, although there are fewer women in the workforce, the women who are working are more likely to choose public service, at rates that are comparable to Scandinavia and Central Europe (38%).
4: Bureaucrats are undereducated (less educated/ have less degrees/ lack tertiary education)
We may think of bureaucrats as only having an average or even minimal level of education when compared to their private sector counterparts where higher degrees are often encouraged. However, here again the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators show a much different picture.
In fact, when looking at bureaucracies worldwide, a staggering 45% of public servants have a tertiary-level education on average. This is in extreme contrast to the private market where the rate is only about 17%. These trends hold across geographic regions and income levels – public servants are consistently well-educated in both high and low-income countries.
5: Bureaucrats are underpaid
A final assumption of the public sector could be that bureaucracies have large numbers of underpaid public servants. However, when compared to the private sector, bureaucrats tend to come out ahead in almost every region.
The average wage premium for a public servant is about 17% over the private sector. And the public sector wage is consistently higher in most geographic regions and across all income levels.

Figure 3: Public sector wage premium

Although we have preconceived notions about bureaucracies, the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators show us that many of these can be debunked, or at least better understood. Moving forward, investing in datasets like the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators can help us better understand the intricacies and trends of bureaucracies so we can better tailor interventions to meet their specific needs.
If you are interested in this topic and would like to continue the dialogue, join our event on November 8-9, Innovating Bureaucracy, to discuss challenges and innovations in bureaucracy.


Submitted by David Harold Chester on

Bureaucracies are an indication of having too much government control of the rest of our social system. Some control is necessary and so is a degree of bureaucracy, but it should be strictly limited and the less the government interferes with the public the better!

In a request for a prayer for the Czar, the rabbi answers: "May the Lord help and keep him far away from us!"

Submitted by Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'o, PhD on

Dear Daniel,

Thank you very much for this series on data driven study of the bureaucracy. This data is extremely crucial NOT ONLY in debunking some of the long held myths about bureaucracies (more so in developing countries) but can also be used in informing a lot of other aspects of public management. For instance - Kenya for along time focused on Academic qualifications so much that a civil servant could not move beyond middle-level management without a masters degree! The degree craze in the civil service and the wider public service has seen literally every cadre including support staff, such as drivers acquiring degrees. Acquiring a degree in itself is NOT bad but, the challenge is, attainment of academic qualifications and longevity has for a long time been used as a basis for promotion in the civil service in Kenya instead of performance. With an increase of those attaining degree, this is no longer tenable and such people whose numbers have kept on swelling are not being promoted on completion of their degree studies. Slowly there is a growing number of civil servants feeling disillusioned.

So the fundamental question is, beyond the basic minimum academic qualifications for a job, does attainment of additional academic qualifications, such a masters degree or even a PhD have a direct impact on performance or service delivery? Does a civil service with a higher percentage of relatively highly educated civil servants perform better? Where are such people deployed and what would be the best way to deploy them- just thinking a loud- I would wish to for example what data says on such areas

More fundamentally though from the data- which seems to debunk a lot of theories- such as the high staff turnover from civil service especially in the middle-level professional positions is due to the low pay! if pay is more or less the same as in the private sector- why do young professionals leave the civil service.

Can the five indicators you have currently worked on be used to isolate crucial factors and areas of further research to give more insights in to what would be the best areas to look at in developing Career Progression Guidelines or Career Management- to attract and retain talent?

I am therefore definitely following keenly on this research to:

1. See how I can adapt the instruments (or the findings) to a local environment and use the data to improve policy formulation in the Kenyan Public Service;

2. Use the findings to understand where Kenya lies and what that may portend for the development of the Public Service;

Sylvester O. Obong'o, PhD
Head | Research and Policy Analysis,
Public Service Commission- Kenya

Submitted by Mustafa Hussein on

Interesting findings.

Triggered my reflection on what would characterise bureaucrats' work day. What are they preoccupied with intellectual work or menial tasks.

Submitted by Abdurazak on

In some of the poorest counties the bureaucrats are under paid and therefore in order to survive would probably opt for corruption.In some of the failed and fragile states usually the bureaucrat is paid less than one third of what the private sector pays, but manages millions of dollars, it will be very naive to think that the bureaucrat will decently manage the public finds and let himself and his family starve. Such is the case in many fragile countries, you will probably find a bureaucrat legally earning couple of hundred dollars per month but buying a house which costs hundred thousand dollars.

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