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The government: From service provider to empowerment

Jun 14,2021 - Last updated at Jun 14,2021

By Ibrahim Saif  and Samar Obaid

In its abstract form, the word “bureaucracy” bears a negative connotation. In the concrete sense of the word, however, bureaucracy can be looked at as a concept with positive connotation. Based on this simple distinction, one can argue that the main policy issue facing countries that suffer from the abstract form of bureaucracy is how to design a “non-bureaucratic bureaucracy”. Indeed, if one looks the negative aspects of bureaucracy, few complaints can be raised. For example, officials are accountable to their superiors and not to those who are governed. Similarly, officials operate without any competition have no incentive to provide public goods and services efficiently. In addition, public administration is captured by vested private interests whose economic activities are supposed to be regulated in the first place. Finally, public administration rules are enforced in an arbitrary manner, favouritism and discrimination.

In the Jordanian scene, one can argue that the size of the public sector is large in terms of both employment and expenditure levels. It is imperative for any administrative-economic reform to take this observation into consideration. New policies vis-a-vis reforming the public sector, however,cannot overlook the political and social repercussions that are related to the structure of the existing public sector, and the nature of its roles in the present and the future.

The discourse of successive governments in the modern history of Jordan has always been to stress the importance of public sector reforms and to speed-up procedures of decision-making. The final outcomes, unfortunately,have been modest qualitative changes, and often, with deteriorating indicators related to the efficiency of government procedures. However, this does not mean questioning the intentions of the public sector and its desire to change. On the contrary, it is the  lack of capacity, practical procedures and performance indicators that prevent the good intentions into achievable and efficient outcomes. In addition, there is also a missing part related to the ability to execute strategies and follow them upin a clear way. It is clear that the challenges are related to several facts that hinder transformation in general.

Below, we outline a number of observations which must be examined before embarking on the effective execution of public policy.

1. While there is a consensus on achieving any envisioned goals,there is internal resistance to change within the government. One must admit, however, that this is probably not true at all levels of the administrative decision. While most heads of administration adopt this vision, it does not necessarily transcend to the lower levels. Indeed, because of their direct and indirect impacts on the existing structure, any new imposed modes of decision-making are looked at in a sceptical manner. What we seek in this briefing is to draw a general framework for understanding the working mechanism of the public sector and what tools can be utilised to effect the desired change.

2. Public sector employees may have the necessary skills to adapt to change, or at least to proceed with it. For example, while digitalisation is resisted for personal interests, the lack of the required skills can be another reason. Naturally, this requires the training of administrative leaders in the first place.

3. A roadmap to reform with clear priorities and dynamics should be in place. The absence of such a roadmap makes it necessary to undertake a revolution within the public sector, and not a revolution on the public sector.

4.Generally speaking, there are some observations and shortcomings that can help in forming a general framework to move from diagnosis to implementationat the level of individual institutions, and across agencies. These are outlined below.

a)Need for a comprehensive national strategy whose implementation is based on the principle “upwards to downwards”. The execution initiatives should be applied at the level of ministries and economic sectors, and guide all administrative levels and lead them.

b) Need for sufficient networking among relevant ministries. For example, the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation and the Ministry of Finance should be instrumental in developing plans and strategies of other ministries. Naturally, the financing of the agreed-upon projects and initiatives in the short, medium and long terms should be well-planned and secured. Within this context, there is also a need for the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation to refocus its priorities, and put some concerted effort in not only international cooperation, but also in local planning as well.  

c)It is important to realise that the nature and roles of public institutions have changed over time. When line ministries were established, their basic purpose was to implement their roles as needed (Fit for Purpose). Over time, the number of ministries and institutions has increased to the extent that made it impossible to coordinate their work. On average, ministries and other public institutions,have been forced to conduct their functional roles without having a broad perspective that takes into account the multitude of strategies and initiatives of the government in general.

d)As a result of the frequent changes in the leadership of ministries and public institutions, a clear assessment of performance or accountability is missing. As one might expect, this fact contributes, to not only the demoralisation of public employees, but also to making the follow-up and assessment process more difficult.

f)The enabling environment in Jordan is weak. Ministries and other public institutions assume the role of service providers and not enablers. The enabling role should cooperate with the private sector and develop strategies and identifythe necessary legislation and organisational structures. Such a role would make it relatively easy to identify the required talents and skills that are consistent with the adopted strategies.

g)Despite the desire to expedite digital transformation, many neighbouring countries have sur-passed Jordan. This partially explains the decline in the confidence of citizens in the performance of the government performance, and in its real intention to move forward in this field.  The digitalisation of obsolete and complicated processes makes any transformation that much harder to realise, and sometimes irrelevant. Accordingly, the government should adopt an agile organisation structure to map the relationship between all institutions, and ease the flow of information and decision-making process between them. The goals and proceduresshould precede any digitalisation process.

h) The decision-making process at the government level has become increasingly complicated. Committees tasked with certain purposes often make decisions which contradict national strategies. It is clear that multiple and overlapping references make decision-making almost impossible, and this necessitates new mechanisms.


Ibrahim Saif ,a CEO of  Jordan Strategy Forum and Samar Obaid,  from Ernst & Young – Jordan  contributed this article to The Jordan Times. 


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