As the world observed U.N. Public Service Day on June 23, it was hard to miss the perfect storm brewing across the globe. Disenchantment with public service delivery has engulfed Brazil, Greece, Turkey and South Africa. Closer home, the disaster in Uttarakhand has highlighted the potential of public service to make or mar thousands of lives. Critically, public management is seen as failing the disadvantaged, especially those who have no choice but to resign to its inadequacies.
In response to trenchant criticism, the global development discourse has focused on devising numerous policies, structures and strategies. But, inevitably, the front line, institutional mechanism has not received the kind of analytical attention it warrants. Across the world, public organizations are typically characterized by rigid weberian structures with minimal space for individual innovation or creativity. Governance frameworks exhibit command and control characterized by top-down leadership and delegation upwards.
Employees are adept at both overly respecting and exercising power, suppressing values of self in deference to those of the system. Not surprisingly, World Bank studies show that public service reform programs are the most intractable. The recurrent challenge is to bring about changes in people and system performance.
Harvard’s Frauke de Weijer associates these failures with treating such socio-human resource challenges as mere technical ones to be tamed by procedures and bureaucratic structures. Essentially, preoccupations with form need to be replaced by an understanding that development is predicated on an uninhibited rejection of the status quo – that is, understanding development as a change endeavor focused on facilitating those at the bottom of the pyramid towards higher satisfaction levels.
What this means is that change should necessarily begin at the bottom, the site of frequent interaction between citizens and the monolithic state. It is the experience of this interface that determines the quality of the service and how citizens subsequently view the state. This front line actuality epitomizes the concept of Barefoot Bureaucracy – a construct that is bureaucratic in its regulatory behavior yet barefoot in its proximity with the citizen and their shared socio-cultural and economic milieu.
Barefoot bureaucracies reflect this personality paradox in the wide gamut of their choice, ranging from the whimsical bureaucratic gatekeeping in routine implementation, to yeoman barefoot service during disasters. In a world of scarce resources, who is granted access to free medicines, the water tap or the destitute pension? These are the many moral judgments they make everyday. Yet, there is potential in this paradox.
Research has shown that successful public organizations are characterized by unusual dedication of ground-level employees to their jobs, with a strong sense of mission, purpose and the capacity to build relationships based on trust and ownership with communities. Globally, public services are under intense pressure to improve performance. While many structural reforms have been tried, barefoot bureaucracy has been consistently bypassed.
Undeniably, sustained development can only be achieved by triggering the value creating potential at the bottom of the public service environment. Global policymakers should repose faith in these subalterns and reap the benefit of silent evolutionary change. With just mundane means they can generate spectacular ends. The tiger will change its stripes.