Monday, July 1, 2019

A 'good' public servant

This framework follows from a discussion with a colleague. 

There are perhaps four requirements for a 'good' public servant

1. Integrity in terms of personal honesty
2. Commitment to the cause and a positive attitude 
3. Professional competence by way of adequate domain knowledge and understanding of the context
4. Effective in being able to get things done within the public system, conditional on the available resources

The first two are essentially inherent or cultivated personal attributes, and the last two are acquired knowledge and skills. 

But conventional wisdom generally focuses only on integrity and competence. The role of commitment and effectiveness is generally glossed over. This omission is important since the true test of a policy is its successful execution. And it is here that commitment and effectiveness assumes significance. In weak capacity environments and with complex policy challenges, where frustrations can build up quickly and ambiguities are rife, these two attributes are critical in realising success.

Commitment gives the energy to the official to plod on. Effectiveness is about navigating the complex system and extracting work from its resources. In fact, if an official gets to the starting line to meaningfully engage with a policy, one could argue that only commitment and effectiveness matters in his/her likelihood of being successful with execution. 

Ideally, a public servant, especially in leadership positions, should have all the four attributes. But in the real world, while there are honest and competent officials, there are very few who combine it with commitment and effectiveness. 

In fact, when faced with an acute scarcity of officials with all the attributes, I am inclined to identify and select committed and effective officials, even if that comes at an acceptable cost of integrity and competence. Dishonesty, especially if manageable and not rapacious, can perhaps be condoned in terms of efficiency wages (given low public sector wages) and less than required professional competence can be mitigated if the official has a team that can take care of the competence requirements and is willing to listen to their advice and act.

Update 1 (07.07.2019)

Rajendra Kondepati writes to me asking whether entrepreneurial (or risk taking ability to improve developmental outcomes) should be added to the list of the below four. He was referring to the need for bureaucrats to advocate and implement fresh ideas instead of merely tinkering with existing policies and programmes. 

I am sympathetic. Perhaps, a more relevant trait of being entrepreneurial is not just about adopting new ideas, but also about having the risk appetite to creatively and constructively interpret rules of the game to break moulds and push the boundaries of what is possible or doable. But this is perhaps also what a broader definition of effectiveness will entail. 

But to call out the specific points about being receptive to new ideas and willingness to push the boundaries of what can be done, it may well be worth adding a fifth trait around being entrepreneurial. 

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