A Professional Minister vs. Professional Bureaucrats

The political climate in Ulaanbaatar is now in favour of the pro-professional cabinet.  President, Chairman, members of parliament, and even well-known columnist Baabar advised Mr. New Prime Minister to recruit professionals outside from the parliament and to tame the parochial interests.  This is not new.  The majority of past governments, either the coalition or the ruling party, had tried. But, I would doubt – this ad hoc solution would address the deep problem of governance – because the current structure of the public service continues to create incentives for anyone to follow their parochial interests, but not the fine laws of the Public Service and professional merits. 

First, professionals are frustrated – they don’t want to see another around of the politicization.  Now we can categorize the public servants into three major categories: (1) old cadre and senior specialists, (2) newly recruited professionals through merits, and (3) political party-affilliated specialists.  The first group are people who are familiar with the bureaucratic routines – who were either part of or worked with experienced cadre of the pre-1990 administrations.  Now most accept – they [senior specialists – ‘ахлах мэргэжилтнүүд’] are shouldering the heavy workload.  The second group has been recruited through a standard public service entry process [following the professional merits].  They are hardworkers, but poorly paid.  The last group could be divided into two sub-categories: (1) the true party fanatics – who come and go depending on the election results and (2) assimiliators – who find ways to become public servants through the political party line.  In comparison with previous two groups, the third group has less incentives and expertise to work, but more accessible to benefits (e.g., travel, schools, awards, bidding, contracts).  For sure, the new professional minister and vice minister will bring his/her own team (e.g., advisors, assistants) and will attempt to provide another opportunities for political party-affilliated specialists.

Second, it will deepen the unequal distribution of the workload and benefits.  After each election, at the national and provincial/local governments, we would see strong (most of the time, quite explicit) competitions for posts of ministers, vice-ministers, chiefs, and deputy chiefs of agency, chiefs of departments, senior positions of the state-owned enterprises.  Why, because these posts are highly paid and accessible to all sorts of public funds and assets.  And, even these senior officials create new positions and units for ‘their’ persons, but not for the workload.  This parochial interest-driven process creates unequal distribution of workload and benefits for public servants.  The majority of public servants could not complain because they could be easily marginalized or victimized by temporary political appointees.

Third, the appointment of the professional minister and the ignorance of professional bureaucrats weaken the bureaucracy – which is the core of any government.  Obviously, we would see three types of professional ministers in this new cabinet: (1) A true professional minister – an skillful manager, who can uphold his professional expertise and ethnics over other interests.  (2) A ‘hijacked’ minister – a good manager, but caught up in his/her personal, factional, and tribal (i.e., provincial) interests.  (3) A ‘balanced’ minister – who tries to balance his professional and parochial interests.  But, all these ministers will work under same structural constraints.  For one, they are all uncertain about the fate of the coalition government – since they could not see the lifespan of the new government within and beyond one and half year.  Second, they and their team would spend 3-6 months to figure out, 3-6 months to implement, and 3-6 months to choose their options before the 2016 election.  Third, political parties, political and economic factions, their provincial homeland associations (нутгийн зөвлөл), and others will often pressure them either to support their candidates, polices, and tenders or not to endanger these interests.  Some professional ministers would fight against these structural constraints, but most wouldn’t because of the audience costs.

So, what should be done.

Yes, Mr. New Prime Minister has no options other than to appoint professional ministers, but, it would be a temporary fix – and exacerbate the underlying problems.

This is up to the parliament.  The parliament is the only institution – that could establish a non-partisan commission to examine the public service, to brainstorm with the past and current experts, and to implement a long-term public service reform plan.

The commission could be headed by influential politicians – former presidents and prime ministers – along with non-partisan experts.  They could examine past experiences (even including the communist periods and along with transitional periods of 1990s), asks hard questions on why our fine public service law, regulations, and standards are not solving the problems, and, produces the long-term public service reform strategy.

The public service is the core, the main processor (i.e., computer PC), of the state.  Our processor needs an overhaul, if we delay this reform process, the state will implode; the bureaucracy could not respond to any external and internal crisis.   With a short-term fix, parties will continue to see the public service as a school for their cadre, an asset for their election, and a source of income whereas the political-economic factions will consider the bureaucracy a tool to increase and protect their profits. Only the parliament could dismantle this current public service structure that forces public servants to side with politicians, parties, and factions to survive, but not pursue their professional merits. 


About mendee

Jargalsaikhan Mendee is a Deputy Director of the Institute for Defense Studies of Mongolia. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia, and MAs in International Relations from the US Naval Postgraduate School and in Asia-Pacific Policy Studies from the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia.
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2 Responses to A Professional Minister vs. Professional Bureaucrats

  1. Bruce McKean says:

    Your analysis rings true.

    Unfortunately it is, with variations, true for all nation states. Certainly any change in administration in the USA sees wholesale changes in everything from senior bureaucrats to Ambassadors to appointees to agencies, authorities and quasi-governmental bodies. In the bureaucracy I know best – Canada – divisions very similar to those you describe happen.

    There are, however, two important distinctions to be made.

    1. The state apparatuses are grossly different in scale and role. The ability of political appointees (or political hangers-on that are parachuted into the bureaucracy) are rarely numerous enough to cause serious distortions: the bureaucratic beast is injured but carries on until the next political wave hits. Note: not all of these people are liabilities. Most are not all fools and can become useful and productive, especially when the political winds change and they, like other public servants, are judged on their merits rather than their connections.

    2. The rewards of public service in a country like Canada are, for most public servants, exactly that: service to the public and the nation. When, after 23 years in the public service, I moved to private industry I was shocked at the monetary difference. The vast majority of bureaucrats are not in it for the money and certainly not for the status.

    These predictable expressions of human nature – and their consequences – are, however, vastly more important politically, socially and economically for a nation such as Mongolia. There are dangers here. Where is the identification with the nation as opposed to the family or the tribe or the party? And if there is not a collective expectation of service beyond self and citizens weary of constant turmoil and questionable practices, does it not open the door to “a strong leader”, euphemism for a sort of political state too common in the world?

    The trick is for leadership to emerge but not to conquer. In this, Mongolia is clearly still feeling its way and, no doubt, will do it in ways consistent with its culture and character. And for that it has our very best hopes and wishes.

    • mendee says:

      Dear Bruce,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I did observe that when I was working and studying in the states. But, the key problem for Mongolia is that individuals and factions weaken the state institutions – esp., in regards with the rule of law.

      Thank you,

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