Thursday, 7 July, 2022

Revisiting Politics - Administration Dichotomy

Revisiting Politics - Administration Dichotomy
Pranab Kumar Panday

The fundamental principle of public administration suggests that politicians and bureaucrats, as servants, should serve the citizens who are the owner of the state. For some time, there has been a shift in the fundamental philosophy of both politicians and public administrators. We have travelled through various paradigm shifts in the study of public administration over the last fifty years. However, in principle, no paradigm suggests that there should be a transformation in the behaviour of politicians and administrative officials from the servant of the republic to the master of the republic.

While explaining a paradigm shift in the behaviour of politicians and administrators, we must relate this issue with the first paradigm of public administration which is the politics-administration dichotomy (1900-1926). The key promise of this paradigm was the principle of separating politics and the administrative roles of government as a mechanism of fostering productivity and effectiveness in the affairs of the state. Woodrow Wilson, who was the proponent of this paradigm with his ground-breaking article of 1887, entitled "the Study of Administration" in the Political Science Quarterly, identified four requirements of effective public administration. These include (i) separation of politics and administration, (ii) comparative analysis of private and political organisations, (iii) enhancement of performance by organisational practices and behaviours towards the everyday operations, and (iv) improvement of public service performance through the management and training of officials and promoting merit-based evaluation.

From the perspective of this paradigm, policy-making lines at the forefront of politicians' responsibility, whereas the main function of public administrators is to implement policies. It is however a challenge to distinguish clearly between the roles of politicians and policy administrators. From the paradigm perspective, it was, however, suggested that efforts must be made to minimise the gap. The key factor that creates hindrance in making demarcation between the role of politicians and bureaucrats is the dual responsibility of the bureaucrats in the policy process. For instance, one of the main responsibilities of the administrators is to assist the Minister by providing the information needed in the policy process. On the other hand, being the executive head of the ministry in a democratic country, the secretary remains responsible for the execution of policies through his/her field-level officials. It is, therefore, neither possible nor feasible to ensure a complete separation between politics and administration in the affairs of the state.

In the context of the developing democracy, the situation of politics-administration dichotomy is quite different as compared to developed democracy as the politicians, due to the lack of adequate competencies required for policy-making, depend on the bureaucrats to a great extent for performing their policy-making role. These dependencies provide bureaucrats with opportunities to control the democratic process. In a way, the administrators are gaining more power in the affairs of the state, leading them in some cases to engage in various types of confrontation with politicians at the central as well as at the local level. We have witnessed the tussle between the Minister and the secretary over different issues in Bangladesh. Due to failure to ensure a separation between the politicians and administrators we, very often, experience unpleasant incidents in the administrative affairs. Both parties are responsible for the degradation of ethics and values in administration. However, such incidents mostly occur at the field level, rather than the central level.

The field level bureaucracy tends to help its political master in exploiting different types of unethical benefits. Of course, we should not generalise this, since many bureaucrats at the field level try to work sincerely without adhering to their political master. Once the field level administrators gain the confidence of the politicians, they start behaving like the master of the citizens instead of being their servants. Therefore, we often witness incidents of misconduct of the field level bureaucrats with the local people. It does not mean that the bureaucrats are always liable for these unforeseen events at the local level. This often arises because of the citizens' unpredictable behaviour.

Another dimension is the harsh conduct of politicians on the field level bureaucracy. One such incident of a Member of Parliament (MP) has widely been discussed in social, print and electronic media for the last week. One recorded phone call went viral where it was revealed that the MP was speaking very disrespectfully with the UNO. Being a parliament member he should not speak in such a language. In addition to offending government officials, he breached a parliamentarian's code of ethics. It has been alleged that the member of the parliament has also breached the electoral laws and sought to manipulate the election process having stayed at his constituency during the local government election. One positive thing is that the issue has taken seriously by the Election Commission who has already filed a lawsuit claiming that the local lawmaker has violated the legal provision.

This was not the only incident of this kind in the country. Many incidents have taken place throughout the country in the past. Unfortunately, all those incidents were not taken into cognisance by the EC. Therefore, the strong attitude of the EC has been vehemently criticised by a section of the society claiming that the EC has taken strong action in this case because the parliament member is not from the ruling party. Whatever might be the cause, the EC deserves an appreciation for its intention of taking action against the lawmaker for his wrongdoing. The lawmaker should understand that they are not above the law and thereby his behaviour should be controlled.

Now one may wonder why there has been a shift in the behaviour of the politicians and administrators in the country. Is it due to the failure of the state to ensure separation between the politics and administration in its affairs? A possible answer is, of course. I assume that many academics, politicians and bureaucrats would disagree with my argument. But, at the same time, it is also true that this is not the only factor. Several other factors have led to this transformation in the behaviour of politicians and administrators. It is the political party's failure to pick the right person for the right position. Moreover, they have failed to develop a political culture by providing orientation to its leaders.

On the other hand, the successive governments of the country have failed to stop the degradation of bureaucratic values. The dependency of the politicians on the bureaucrats has made the latter group very powerful and thus they behave very rudely not only with the junior officials but also with the citizens. It is, therefore, time to revisit the paradigm of politics-administration dichotomy at the forefront of academic discourse. Over dependency of politicians on bureaucracy has not only weakened the political environment but also sent a very bad message about the capability of the politicians. Political parties should understand the severity of the situation and act positively to ensure separation between politics and administration. The present government has been working hard to take Bangladesh to the next levels of economic development which has been evident through different indicators. But, they should now shift their focus on the development of institutions ensuring the separation between the roles of politicians and administrators. Otherwise, we would have to experience bad days ahead.


The writer is a Professor of Public

Administration and an Additional

Director of the Institutional Quality

Assurance Cell (IQAC) at the University of Rajshahi.