Public deliquescence

José I. Duarte
Economist
The former president of the Legislative Assembly, Susana Chou, has turned her fire once again on the performance of the public administration. According to media reports, she has not minced her words. By these or other words, she essentially brands many in the administration as incompetent, lazy managers, and careless – if not ostentatious – spenders of public funds. And so that no doubt creep in, it has been so for the last 15 years, she added. Not for the first time have such strong words emanated from a former top official.
It is enough to read the various reports the Commission for Audit or the Corruption Commission have produced over the years to come to the conclusion that even obvious and public failures to comply with the basic principles and duties of good administration come usually to nothing – nobody seems to be or feel responsible, and nothing really ever happens. There are some exceptions, surely, but that seems to be a fairly accurate description of the reality of public services.
Less visible than management blunders with big public investment projects are many day-to-day operations which, in such a lax environment, are bound to occur – careless if not abusive use of public resources and funds, reluctance to take decisions, negligent performance of duties, lack of co-operation between sectors, and so on. The literature is full of examples of what happens when there is no clear vision or strategy; when policies and principles are either badly defined or openly ignored; and when relationships, not merit – as it must be assumed in this case – are the rewarding principle. The proper workings of public services – and, to be fair, we can identify several departments that distinguish themselves at that level – is not just a matter of numbers or the skill sets of its workers. Those are certainly important. But when we reach the level of malfunction that Ms. Chou highlights, the main issue is leadership, compounded by the absence of an effective system of responsibility assignment and performance appraisal – which nobody sees arriving soon.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the administration continue to swell. It is not clear that such growth results from a formal and careful assessment of needs or follows any kind of underlying plan. More is not necessarily better. Quite the contrary, it can even mean worse if the working style remains the same. Worse still, for all the talk about attracting talent, in such a context the public administration can even become a magnet for the less qualified or committed of workers. Where else can you survive and, possibly, thrive by blundering along at a cost of millions of patacas? Where else can you violate laws and public norms without consequence? And assuming that a lax working environment extends to recruitment procedures, where else can refuge be found by those that do not meet the working standards set in other sectors of activity, or find life there too tough?