Bureautocracy in control

An issue that has always vexed governance since the introduction of democracy in Bhutan is the relationship between elected leaders and senior bureaucrats.

The tension was most visible after the 2008 Elections when Bhutan got its first democratically elected government.

For several months, and in some cases, a couple of years, the senior bureaucracy consisting of Secretaries and even some Directors seemed to have more say than some new ministers.

In a certain ministry, it was well known that the new minister was clueless as to what was happening in his own ministry and all decisions were being taken by the Secretary.

Older ministers who had more experience had a smoother time and were able to assert better control. It also helped that many senior bureaucrats were either well known associates, or in some cases, their own relatives.

Given the understandable, but at the same time, excessive fear of political interference – the entire bureaucratic system, especially at the senior levels, has ended up with a lot of excessive independence, powers and leeway in the system.

Even in countries where ministers have far more say over bureaucrats, the same bureaucrats can use various tools to undermine the democratic will of politicians. This is best illustrated in the BBC hit series, ‘Yes Minister’ which examines the subject of how bureaucrats undermine politicians in England.

The new government faces a major bureaucratic challenge. This is further complicated by the fact that some senior bureaucrats are seen to be closely affiliated to the previous government or in other cases owe their rise to them.

Senior bureaucrats in ministries control virtually everything, like human resource issues, procurement issues and also administrative issues, as politicians cannot have a say in the respective committees.

If the bureaucrat is strong enough and has adequate bureaucratic colleagues of a similar mind or interests, the elected ministers can virtually be reduced to a mere figurehead.

This kind of a bureaucrat friendly system leads to ministers having to go out of their way to co-opt bureaucrats and consult them on almost all matters.

There are already instances emerging of senior bureaucrats and their colleagues undermining even policy directives from the cabinet and ministers.

The current ministers may not like to hear this, but the ground reality is that there is an emerging consensus that to get ‘work done’ it is more useful

to approach senior bureaucrats than ‘clueless’ ministers.

Another issue is also growing whispers in the corridors of powers that are now spilling onto the streets that senior bureaucrats ‘don’t listen’ to ministers.

Some would say that this is just a part of the natural process of our unique democracy where an older and more experienced bureaucracy is testing the new ministers of a new elected government.

However, the reality is that there is nothing normal about the subversion of the mandate of elected leaders, regardless of their party background by unelected bureaucrats.

If ministers have to spend entire months and years locked in power struggles and drawing of boundaries with powerful bureaucrats then when would they find the time for governance.

If the legitimate directives of an elected cabinet or elected ministers are ignored with no consequences then the very democratic mandate of the people are being undermined.

It is important to note the National Day Speech by His Majesty the King, which pointed out that agencies are exerting independence and greater autonomy at the cost of overall harmony. His Majesty also noted the lack of communication and coordination among agencies.

Bhutanese democracy and good governance will be greatly strained when such powerful bureaucrats exercising near autonomy use their powers, either to further their own interests, or become politically inclined.

Problems will also emerge if a particular party or faction can place their own people in such powerful positions which have little accountability. It is already a well know fact that many senior officials, today, owe their rise and progress due to family or political connections.

It must be remembered that while politicians of any party can be thrown out every five years, the senior bureaucrats will remain for decades and play a more decisive role in influencing what kind of system we have.

The new government will have the patience of the people for a while, but if they are unable to deliver or translate their policies into actions by getting a proper grip on the system, then the blame will sit squarely on their shoulders.

A politicized or subverted bureaucracy with rowdy politicians at the helm is never desirable, but on the other extreme, nobody would like to live under an unelected ‘bureatocracy’ instead of a democracy.

We’ll always have bureaucracies, but bureaucracies led by bureaucrats might be too much of a bad
thing.
John Sununu

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