Rethinking Bureaucracy

By RAJENDRA SIGDEL (The Kathmandu Post)

A suspicion that has bothered our consciousness for decades has become an all but unquestioned truth since 1990s that traditional bureaucracy is not an adequate form of governmental organization. It is rather associated with unaccountable power, corruption, nepotism and favoritism, among others. The question now is not only related to the bureaucratic reform, but also to the alternative models that can be best suited to governing Nepal. People are impatient to experience real democracy where their voice is heard and their aspirations are met. Bureaucracy is the main helping hand of the government for prompt, fair and equitable public service delivery.

Max Weber, the earliest proponent of bureaucracy, has defined it as an ideal type of organization equated with administrative rationality.  According to Weber, the main elements of bureaucracy are hierarchy, division of labor, a set of standard operating procedures, and impersonal relationship. Impartiality and neutrality are the hallmarks of bureaucracy. In other words, bureaucracy is a way of organising works in which people are treated as interchangeable cogs to fill the specialized roles.

For many people the word 'bureaucracy' conjures up an image of a mass of office workers buried in mounds of paper and tied to a set of petty rules, and above all the notorious 'red tape.' It is a common perception that bureaucracies embody vicious circles of decreasing efficiency and effectiveness. Moreover, it has also been looked as inefficient, incompetent, irresponsive and corrupted which lacks flexibility to meet the individual and organizational requirements. Regardless of all the criticisms, the state is composed of numerous bureaucracies at national and local levels; to administer policy concerning government finances and maintaining law and order.

With time, the challenges on bureaucracy have been surmounting which need to be addressed without delay. The transformation of the state from the sole service provider to the facilitator and promoter has paved way for the civil society and private sector to cater the public service. As a direct consequence, the role and size of bureaucracy in this context has been the main challenge. Similarly, the adaptation of ICTs in its overall activities has come as another challenge. Furthermore, it also has to be tuned as per people's aspirations and expectations because it is the main interface between the government and the people. Its significance is believed to be vital in the case of political transition like that of Nepal.

In the present context of our country, the government is expected to be everywhere meeting people's demands. The government of Nepal has to maintain the law and order, operate all the government machineries within the minimum regulatory functions. However, the radical political changes that have taken place in the form of 'regime change' has created a sense of fear and psychosis among the public servants, which has hindered the performance at individual and organizational levels. This scenario does not necessarily reveal the dearth of competent manpower in Nepalese civil service rather manifests the inappropriate government set up. The prevailing problems such as; lack of performance-based incentive or rewards system, the absence of motivating work environment and the like, have been exhibited on literatures The present seven party alliance government is believed to be the strongest one in the Nepalese history which has the mandate of Nepalese people through Janaandolan II. However, it may sound ridiculous that no concrete measures have been taken so as to curb the persisting anomalies in the civil service save for the nominal increase in the salary package.

How can one imagine the Nepalese bureaucracy to be motivated and in high morale if it has been running in almost legal vacuum for the past eight months? After the annulment of the Civil Service Act, Second Amendment Ordinance in June, 2006 the Civil Service Amendment Bill has been gathering dust at the parliament since then. It has not only halted the overall recruitment processes but also has guided the whole mechanism into a quagmire. For instance, the fifteen acting secretaries who are heading the ministries are retaining their posts merely relied on the advice of the Attorney General rather than on a legal base.

The myriad competing ideas or models for improving bureaucracy that warrants our hope and trust have yet to materialize. It has to be restructured into more participatory, less hierarchical, and more responsive towards public interests and reduction of inequality and domination. A coherent and persuasive strategy for confronting and transforming bureaucracy into self-managing alternatives of autonomous working groups, self-reliant communities, federations and networks is a must. Many western governments have tried to improve their bureaucracies chiefly relied on a combination of re-invention, re-engineering, and streamlining of strategies. Market and competition based solution to organize the efficient and effective delivery of government services through non-governmental organizations has been sought as an alternative to the bureaucracy but we must also be wary of the circumstances and the limits.

Bureaucracy has its sensitivity in the state affairs. We hope and trust in the creative abilities of unshackled government employees by breaking the manacles of the burdensome policies and regulations, empowering and holding them accountable for their decisions and actions and rewarding them when they produce in a meaningful way instead of replacing it.  We should identify the structures, approaches, and practices that will allow us to achieve our long-cherished values of government accountability and equity along with the reform values of the nineties; government responsiveness, flexibility, and employee participation or empowerment. Bureaucracy should be operated within the contours of democratic values and norms.


Civil society, the private sector and the political leadership are responsible for the anomalies that have surfaced in bureaucracy. To change bureaucracy, it is necessary to change its feudalistic mentality and making it accountable and responsible. It is only possible when there is clear demarcation of authority, responsibility and resources between bureaucracy and political leadership. The reform initiatives including the upcoming ten-year vision paper of Nepalese Civil Service is expected to address all these aforementioned drawbacks and help bureaucracy restore faith in people.  But the success belies in the honest commitment of all the stakeholders. Last but not least, it would be relevant to mention the decade old adage: Bureaucracy is dead, long live bureaucracy!

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