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Understanding bureaucracy

Zahid Hasnain's picture
Photo: © Gennadiy Ratushenko / World Bank

State capacity is clearly fundamental to development, and the motivation and productivity of the personnel working in the state is clearly fundamental to state capacity.

Government bureaucracies typically employ 15 to 30 percent of all workers, and 50 to 60 percent of formal sector or salaried workers in developing countries. This fact alone warrants a detailed understanding of the functioning of public sector labor markets and their influence on the broader labor market, particularly as the characteristics of public sector workers—their gender, age, and skills profiles, for instance—can be quite different from their private sector counterparts.

But more importantly, the motivation of government workers and thereby the productivity of government bureaucracies impacts almost everything else in an economy, from business regulations, to infrastructure provision, to the delivery of services.

 Our understanding of the personnel dimension of government bureaucracies is patchy at best, despite bureaucracy being a rich field of academic and policy research. Until recently though, this was a largely qualitative pursuit, focusing more on de jure analysis of civil service laws and regulations, and case studies, and laced with a strong normative tone of how bureaucracies should look (i.e. “like Denmark”) and emphasizing “form” over “function”.

Empirical studies such as Rauch and Evans (2000), which used surveys to measure aspects of government bureaucracies, and found a cross-national association between the core characteristics of “Weberian bureaucracies”—meritocratic recruitment and insulation from political interference—and  good governance were an exception. But the field is evolving rapidly, with an array of recent rigorous observational and experimental studies on public service motivation, recruitment, monitoring, performance incentives, and management. 

Here’s what we know so far about the internal workings of government:

This is indeed encouraging progress, and the study of government bureaucracy is poised for the kind of “takeoff” that the study of the firm witnessed in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, there are some significant hurdles that need to be overcome if this is to happen. One is the lack of data. Many governments do not collect good information on the personnel they employ and if they do they are averse to sharing it with the public despite the fact that public tax pesos pay for these employees. Another is that it is hard to do experiments for most core government functions unless there is a phased roll-out of a particular initiative that enables randomization, which is rare.

Getting this data systematically across a range of countries will require partnerships with governments for which the World Bank is uniquely positioned. 

We—the Governance Global Practice and Development Economics Research Group — recently began an initiative called the Bureaucracy Lab which will gather administrative data, conduct surveys of government bureaucrats, and conduct field experiments of various public sector reform initiatives. A better understanding of the personnel employed in government—their numbers, gender, age, academic qualifications, earnings, and the occupations—is the bare minimum for analyzing state capacity and its impact on a variety of development outcomes.

Surveys of government workers can complement these descriptive statistics by offering insights on a variety of human resource and management practices; for example, a recent survey in the Philippines found that teachers were largely motivated by mission while administrative workers were largely motivated by job security.

Opening up the “black box” of the internal workings of the government bureaucracy is critical for understanding the determinants of state capacity. Our work is just beginning and it promises to be a challenging and exciting journey!

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Submitted by Adiza Lamien Ouando on

Government workers are often refered to through the weaknesses of public administration. Some government vorkers are harder workers than some people from the private sector r international organizations. One problem that hampers the personnel employed by the government performance is the politization of public administration. Rewards are not often equal to efforts and performance but equal to membership of the ruling political party or close relationships with high authorities.

Submitted by Solomon G.Melka on

This is excellent, collecting, compiling and analyzing data and transforming them in to information and policy actions would have an indispensable role not only in realizing an ambitious SDGs but also they are eminent in achieving national development priorities. Accordingly, the Bureaucracy Lab, will be instrumental in generating this type of information and enhancing informed decision and researches.But, since bureaucracy is conceived as a machine by politicians and even government employees in developing countries there has to be some form of initiatives/action to differentiate between politics and governance.

Submitted by Michael Steidl on

We need more evidence based approaches to strengthen rationality in policymaking. Way to go!

Submitted by Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'o on

This is a very timely research. You are spot on with your observation that the characteristic and the composition of government workers have an impact on their performance and productivity. Your observations on the what motivates public servants in different sectors is interesting, so is the observation on the type of people attracted to the service.

As a practitioner and a researcher-with primary interest in the Bureaucracy Lab- it would be of interest to also understand the impact of NPM -orientation on public servants. The lack of uniformity in areas such as tenure of service, some offices being short-term contracts and others being permanent and pensionable! Has it robbed of public service the esprit de corps where for example a cohort of public servants- joined together, went through same - induction and in service management training programs eventually eventually rose to head differnt departments shared a more or less similar background???

I am persuaded that a deeper understanding the bureaucracy will yield a better understanding of implementation of reforms, especially in developing countries. I would wish to be actively involved in such areas.

Sylvester O. Obong'o PhD,
Performance Management and Public Service Reforms,
Public Service Commission (Kenya)

Submitted by Uzma on

Bureaucracy lab - sounds interesting. Developing south is rampant with governance issues and bureaucracies, without any exaggeration, are one big hindrance to faster progress and innovation. The rules regulations and even laws are mostly influenced if not designed by these public servants in the highest offices and thereby protecting their own existence, legacy and continuity. Unfortunately, most of these bureaucracies traditionally attracted the most educated and influential from the society in the immediate aftermath of decolonization and the 'babus' got jaded in the old colonial style of exercising influence and power. The absence of any counter-force from the private sector and heavy dependence of the corrupt political governments on the 'babus' (bureaucrats) ensured not only their survival but also perpetuated the old and the rustic.

The development institutions needs to pay more attention to understand the working and the nature of these bureaucracies as the success of their developmental work in the developing countries depends hugely on the functioning and cooperation from this 'fourth indispensable arm' of the government machinery.

Submitted by arturo on

The initiative that is Bureaucracy lab, is very welcomed in Liberia and is already our partner, especially since Liberia is undertaking major reforms in the Public sector which includes improved pay and pay management, and performance management. The statistics provided through this lab increased our understanding of the opinions, qualifications, skills and general approach to life in the public service, and how this increased understanding can assist with the formulation of policies or fine-tuning techniques to produce optimal performances or services which is the ultimate goal of Government.

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