Syndicate content

What type of bureaucrat are you?

Daniel Rogger's picture
Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.
Bureaucracy Board Game Playing Cards, Avalon Hill

In the world of public sector bureaucracy, what type of bureaucrat are you? 
In the board game 'Bureaucracy', you must assume the role of the ‘Lifer’, the ‘Over Achiever’, the ‘Empire Builder’, or the ‘Hustler’.  Each character must use different tactics associated with their personality to rise up the ranks of the bureaucracy to achieve the position of director.  For example, by amassing contacts, the Hustler can attempt a 'power play' on players above her in the hierarchy. 

Though a rather tongue in cheek look at the everyday lives of so many of us working in large organizations, this board game has given me a different lens through which to understand the world of the public sector bureaucracy. 
In a new World Bank Working Paper, 'Who Serves the Poor?', I use eight surveys of civil servants from six countries - Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines - to explore the characteristics and experience of life as a public official in the developing world.  Evidence from these surveys implies that the board game isn’t too far from reality.
So what kind of bureaucrats are out there?  Across the civil service, ‘Lifer’ seems the dominant personality type.  In almost all of the countries surveyed, officials entered the service when they were in their mid-twenties, worked for a couple of years before joining their current organization and stay there for a decade or more. But staying doesn’t necessarily mean they are satisfied.  Officials seem to get stuck, with half of those interviewed in Nigeria wanting to have been moved more. A dominant reason for promotion across the surveys is simply that the official has been around long enough, and it’s her turn for promotion.
That's not to say there isn't room for some ‘Over Achievers’.  In Ghana, in particular, two-thirds of officials believe that ability is an important predictor of promotion.  I found evidence consistent with the idea that ability is one route to success in the public sector, which echoes previous research.  However, what it means to be an overachiever varies across settings.  The surveys imply that there is a quite a bit of variation in the average level of education across and within civil services.
The other route to success would seem to be hustling, criss-crossing the civil service in an ascent to the top.  This small minority of such officials is more likely to state that they had control over their career progression and that they had had ‘influence’ on securing their current posting.  These officials, as in the board game, have more of a network, and use it to their advantage.
Hardest to identify are the ‘Empire Builders’.  This might partly be because empires arise opportunistically.  As one spot on the board game puts it, 'Crisis! Payoff: 3 staff, 3 civil service ratings'.  One strategy is to proxy empire by the amount of time officials spend at work beyond their contracted hours, assuming that empires take investment.  Though around 17% of staff are said to be working less than their contracted hours, a third work more, perhaps looking for their moment to empire build.
The surveys I study imply that these personality types are quite consistent across services, echoing some of the surprising similarities across bureaucracies.  Perhaps it is these commonalities of bureaucracy that make it possible to have a board game whose rules are a 'Code of Bureaucratic Regulations' or 5 'stylized facts' of the civil service that I conclude the paper with.  But I also find that the implied mix of personalities varies a lot, with lots of politics, favoritism and hustle in Nigeria and Pakistan contrasted with relatively frequent isolationism in the Philippines.
It’s crucial to understand the personalities that make up the developing world's public sectors.  They are instrumental in ensuring the world's poorest people have access to public services.  Understanding "the glamor and excitement of civil service inaction," as the 'Bureaucracy' board game tagline puts it, is central to securing services for the world’s poorest.

Tweet these: 

New World Bank working paper explores the characteristics of life as a bureaucrat.

In the world of public sector bureaucracy, what type of bureaucrat are you? 

It’s crucial to understand the personalities that make up the developing world's public sectors.


Submitted by Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'o, PhD on

Dear Daniel,

Thank you very much for this post and for sharing your observations from the survey. I hope it can be expanded to other countries. Developing countries public/civil service are a product of diverse influences, ranging from pre-colonial systems and structures, colonial influences, post independence experiences to development partners - conditionalities for assistance and even most crucially the nature of political regime. Understanding the "bureaucrat" is hence crucial.

Before sharing my experience, I wish to may be seek the following clarifications:

1. In your findings in the study- where performance is a factor in promotion- to what levels can such performance propel one to? to the highest or middle level?;
2. Another interesting phenomenon is the "criss-crossing hustler", are they moving department to the other in search of promotions(higher grades)? and when they move do they change designations or they retain the same designation?

This is an interesting approach to understanding the bureaucracy in developing countries and would wish to follow through the debate. I would not mind running the same questionnaire in Kenya and see what responses I would get. Having said that I wish to note the following about the Kenyan Civil Service, which has a huge influence on the TEXTURE

1. Appointment to the top levels in the Civil Service- that what was Permanent Secretary prior to 2010 and what is now Principal Secretary is Political. Even though previously most permanent secretaries came from within the public service, appointment was based on patronage. Then and now the Principal Secretary- has a degree of influence on who becomes a director or any other position below - which in principle are supposed to be competitively filled on merit and performance. It is nevertheless possible to find within this second level officers who have risen through the ranks purely on merit.

2. Career civil servants in Kenya have taken different routes towards the top, thus to director level positions- especially for those positions that require general degrees such as- Probation Officers, Social Workers, Human Resource etc. A social worker today can therefore apply for an HR position in another ministry if it is a higher job group than where they are currently serving and be appointed if they meet the requirements for that position which in most cases are relatively general fitting a broad section of employees. So a typical director in Department such as probation, social work or even gender- is someone who has worked in several departments, and whose single most motivation is search for a position, higher than what they had been holding and whose requirement they met. In such cases civil servants have sort re-designations to career paths (schemes of service) perceived to be progressive. I have my reservations for such career paths, but that is a discussion for another day.

For cadres such as engineers, economists and doctors its is possible to see a clear path as guided by a scheme of service.

Academic qualifications is a prerequisite for promotions in Kenya. In fact for entry level management positions a bachelors degree is a minimum and promotion to the next grade will probably require a Masters Degree.

The Kenyan public service is therefore a mixed grill- But it would be interesting to see what lessons your survey has for Kenya. To what extent - Can such data be used to inform targeting of specific reforms to a specific group;
- If a country gets comprehensive statistics on the nature or "profile" of its civil service, is it possible to use that to influence policy decisions and developing better strategies for not only managing but also reforming the public service?

Lastly in case you are interested in learning more about the Kenyan Public Service- My PhD Research Thesis at the University of Newcastle-
Australia covers more or less similar ground- It was titled "Political Influence, Appointments, Public Service Management and Reforms 1963-2014"

Sylvester Odhiambo Obong'o, PhD,
Performance Management and Public Service Reforms;
Public Service Commission- Kenya.

Dear Sylvester,

Thank you for this very interesting comment.

In response to your requests for clarifications, performance does seem one route for success in many of the services we’ve studied.  However, one frustration we’ve heard is that even though processes are meritocratic, promotion or wage increase freezes delay the possibility of these processes being applied.  In the ‘hustler’ route to success, it seems that officials are moving departments or organisations, and though they stick with the same designation, they undertake whatever work serves them best in the new position.  Interesting that ‘hustlers’ in Kenya use a change in designation to move ahead.

As we try to develop the ‘next generation’ of civil servants surveys, you make a number of excellent suggestions for our work: i) Gaining a better measure of the bureaucratic environment (or what you call ‘texture’) across settings would be key to our interpretation of the other information we collect; ii) assessing the difference in this environment across senior, middle, and junior members of the public administration; and, iii) learning better how we take the lessons from these surveys to feasible packages of reform.

I’ll search for your PhD now and flag your comments to the Kenya team at the Bank who have also highlighted potential interest in a survey in Kenya.  We will get in touch as soon as that becomes a real possibility.

Very best wishes, and thank you again for your comment,


Submitted by Nadeem haque on


Nice blog. Going to read your paper now.

This is an area of research interest to me. Have also served as senior policy maker in Pakistan.

Will be in D.C. Next week. Will try to see if we can connect for conversation.

'Will comment on this and your paper after reading in a few days

Add new comment