MicSem Publications

Why Don’t Our Government Offices Work?

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

May 1998 (MC #22) Cultural Government

Why don't government offices in Micronesia work the way they should? This is a question that frustrated consultants, foreign investors, expatriate residents, and even Micronesian administrators themselves have been asking for years. The question is echoed in other parts of the Pacific and probably in much of Africa, Asia and Latin America as well. The fact that the problem of ineffective government seems to be so widespread suggests that its roots lie far deeper than the failure of island men and women to understand what is expected of them in government service.

Instances abound of ineffective government service. Principals fail to enforce the work standards that they themselves have promulgated to their teachers. A teacher, for example, returns from a long, unexplained absence without receiving any reprimand for his irresponsible conduct or deduction from his paycheck. An employee who time and again has demonstrated his incompetence in performing his work will not be fired. Instead, he will be propped up by another person or two-at added expense, of course-to enable the office to do what he should have been able to do alone in the first place. A failed administrator is not terminated, but is shuffled laterally to a job that has been tailor-made to keep him on the payroll.

Then there is the age-old problem of lack of maintenance, something that has been noted in just about every report on government administration written in the last forty years. Generators in power plants are run into the ground, without any of the most elementary maintenance measures, only to be discarded after just a fraction of their ordinary lifespan. Hospitals, trucks, police stations, government housing-all show the sad effects of inadequate maintenance. The operative philosophy seems to be: let machines and buildings run as long as they can without regular care, then toss them aside and buy a new one.

Nothing-from the copy machine to the school system or health system-seems to run as efficiently as it is supposed to. From time to time this unhappy fact is acknowledged and resolutions are made to change matters, usually by providing technical training to employees in the hope that more knowledge will redress the problem. It does not do so. Why should it, when the real problem has never been ignorance. Sadly, we have not even correctly diagnosed what we see as the problem of poor management. We offer new textbooks or health manuals, added inducements like pay increases, training workshops by the dozens-mostly to no avail. But why should there be any response when we have not uncovered the problem. The root of the problem is not informational; it is attitudinal.

An expensive education study of the FSM commissioned by the Asian Development Bank a few years ago tagged many of the problems in schools as stemming from lack of curriculum materials, poor instructional methods, defective educational policies, and other such things. Somehow it missed the obvious: that the best schools differ little from the poorest in these things. The most striking difference lies in the caliber of the administration and the management practices it employs. Well managed schools produce fine educational results, regardless of what textbooks they use and the age at which they begin English instruction. On the other hand, failure to administer well reaps disastrous results. "The chief cause of death in Micronesia is disorganization," as Dr. Greg Dever used to tell his students at the Pacific Basin Medical School on Pohnpei.

For years I have believed that many of the problems that we think of as educational or health delivery problems are actually management problems. They, and so many of the other ills that we expatriates decry in these islands, are due to what appears to be the inability of local people to adopt good management procedures-procedures that seem as natural to some of us as breathing in and out. But, if good management procedures are so "natural," why do so many Micronesians seem to have such a hard time adopting them?

What is good management? Much of our modern-day understanding of proper management derives from the ways bureaucracies operate. Government offices are supposed to be little hives in which functionaries operate according to fixed rules-issuing licenses, collecting taxes, carrying on the other business of government according to the guidelines that are issued. The regulations governing the conduct of business are clear. So is the authority system and the hierarchical chain of command. The flow charts taped to the wall of the office tell everything there is to know about the authority system: who can overrule whom in the bureau. Yet, the chain of command in a bureaucracy is not as important as it might seem, for each office constitutes a separate cell with its own distinct procedures and it operates rather autonomously on a day-by-day basis.

The persons who serve in a bureaucracy are specially trained functionaries, apparatchiks without any interest in where we were born, what we do for a living, who our maternal grandparents may be, and what title we might hold. All such information is judged irrelevant, for the bureaucracy is faceless and impersonal. Administrative procedures dictate that all who ask for service, whether high- or low-born, whether penthouse occupant or slumdweller, are to be treated impartially. All that matters is whether the applicant for service has satisfactorily complied with the regulations that govern the office's conduct of business.

Just as, in the theory of a bureaucracy, the one requesting service is faceless and formless, so too is the one who delivers the service. The bureaucracy is composed of persons who are selected for their positions solely on the qualifications they possess to perform the work required of them. These functionaries operate like interchangeable parts, not in the sense that any one of them can perform any and all jobs, but in that a person could be replaced by anyone outside the bureaucracy possessing the necessary skills with no impact on the system. Everything would move as efficiently as before.

Does this sound like your typical island government office? Impersonality? Anonymity? Business conducted with a blind eye to social status? Procedural rules first, persons second?

Not in Micronesia. Probably not even in Guam, where peoples seeking service routinely call a primo ("cousin") in a government office, no matter what department they wish to deal with.

What we know as the rules of good management are derived largely from the procedures for bureaucracies, which themselves are of recent North Atlantic vintage. As Max Weber pointed out in his classic work on the subject, bureaucracies are not the historical rule but the exception, even in the mammoth political structures that were erected following the imperial conquests of the Near Eastern, Germanic and Mongolian empires. The far more common form of administration was through personal legates or court servants, individuals whose authority was temporary and much more open-ended than that of bureaucratic functionaries. In short, bureaucracies and the principles of management that derive from them were not to be found in the great ancient empires of the world nor even in European courts and the political systems that depended on them. Like other features of our global landscape today-democratic political institutions and human rights terminology, for instance-the management procedures that we sometimes regard as universal and innate are actually a modern innovation. They are the product of a particular socio-economic environment, even if they have gained wide acceptance throughout the world today.

This, of course, raises the dreaded "C"-word: culture. Many of the frustrated expatriates mentioned at the beginning of this article will react with fury to what they see as the familiar easy excuse that is trotted out every time any criticism is made of local people. "You just don't understand our culture" is a phrase that, in their thinking, hides a multitude of sins. Yet, the fact is that very few culture-proof institutions have ever made their way across the sea to Pacific Island societies. Not churches, not schools, not hospitals, not political institutions, and not the administrative systems that seem so "natural" to some.

On the other side of the cultural divide, Micronesians sometimes object that they are stuck with Western administrative systems that are as ill-suited to their island societies as the political institutions they have inherited from the West. Their response is: throw the beast out and replace it with something more indigenous, more harmonious with island values. These advocates for the "Pacific Way" do not seem to notice that this has already happened. What we see operating in our government offices today is not Western bureaucracy pure and simple, not the phenomenon that Max Weber and others have described in the sociological literature. It is a hybrid, an adaptation of the administrative manuals altered to fit the Micronesian context.

We may have a system that maintains most of the external trappings of such an administrative system, but it certainly does not function like this. If rules truly bind in our government offices, they do so in a very relaxed way and with plenty of room for exceptions. Most of us are well aware that there is more than one door into the government office; people are always entering the office through the back door and most of the windows, while some others-the poorly connected-can't even seem to squeeze through the front door. In a true bureaucracy it should not make any difference who you are or whom you know. All that should count is what you want and how congruent it is with the rules of the system. This is manifestly not the case in our island societies today.

No one can seriously maintain that efficiency is the goal that drives the government. If this were the case, letters and files would not get lost, applications would be processed quickly, telephone messages would be passed on to the proper parties, lunches would be finished within the allotted time, reports would be promptly submitted, and overtime work would be a rarity. Perhaps in some hypothetical society-possibly the Germany of which Weber writes-it is possible to fire incompetent employees, but in Micronesia this is regarded as just about the worst form of betrayal. One just doesn't fire an employee who hasn't shown up for work in some time, or who shows neither the interest or competence to perform the job adequately, although someone might be fired for a flagrant show of disloyalty to the boss (as the notorious "fax firings" of those on Saipan who had not supported the past administration demonstrated). How do we deal with the malfunction? Usually by adding on another worker or two who can do the job that the first person can't or won't do.

In general, the management system in Micronesia shows a strong preference for solving problems by adding programs or personnel rather than fixing or replacing what is broken. Instead of getting rid of its termite-eaten pillars, it enwraps them in newer, sturdier boards. If it is culturally difficult to fire an unproductive employee, the administrator can at least surround him with responsible workers to compensate for the former's liabilities while creating the illusion of a well-run office. The same strategy is employed when repairing the effects of poor programs. Rather than attempting to analyze the problem and repairing it, government administrators tend to check the damage by adding new programs to compensate for the first ones. Thus, instead of doing radical surgery on the elementary and high schools to find what is wrong with them and get them to perform better, administrators seem to prefer creating a new post-secondary program to provide students with the skills and information that they should have been receiving much earlier. There are good cultural reasons for this strategy, of course: it avoids what might be seen as intrusion into another's work domain and avoids offending the people who might be challenged if the entire operation were modified. To Western eyes, such a strategy is a failure to come to terms with the problem. From the Micronesian point of view, it is simply a more circuitous but safer strategy for dealing with the problem.

Neglect of maintenance is another frequently repeated criticism of government offices, from the highest down to village level. Is it lack of foresight alone that explains our dreadful track record in maintenance of facilities? Do Pacific islanders have a manana mentality like that attributed to Latin Americans: Why do today what we can put off until tomorrow? Such an explanation is tempting, but there may be more to this question than meets the eye. The Micronesian administrator of a school system may start out with the determination to build into his budget ten or fifteen percent for school maintenance, but when funds get tight and people's jobs are endangered, the easiest category to skimp on is the long-range, nearly invisible category of maintenance. The minor repairs of the buildings and the preventive maintenance work that ought to be done regularly if the school is to be spared serious repairs later on may be "necessary" from a Western point of view, but they represent less immediate and far less personal needs than retaining employees. Hence, maintenance can and should be sacrificed in favor of jobs. In a formula that is pure Pacific Islanders, the long-term once again loses out to the immediate and the material yields to the personal.

Finally, the purpose of government in the popular mind seems to be less to provide critical services for the population than to provide jobs for people. From the early Trust Territory days down to the present, the government has been by far the largest employer in the islands. Although this has changed on Guam and in the Northern Marianas with the growth of a sizeable tourist industry, most local people continue to look on the government as a bottomless source of secure and well-paying jobs. This view of the government was highlighted during public discussions in FSM on reducing the budget and downsizing the government workforce. Repeatedly administrators, taking their lead from the general public, have been forced to make cuts not on the basis of efficient delivery of services but out of consideration for the employees and their families. Cutbacks are implemented in such a way as to minimize the negative impact on government workers, and to distribute the impact equally where it is unavoidable, with very little serious thought given to what persons and sets of skills are necessary or superfluous for a department.

The cultural explanations for what can be called "inefficient government" are many and obvious-at least to anyone who has developed a familiarity with island thinking. Much of the inefficiency is owing not to simple incompetence nor to an obstinate refusal to implement better administrative procedures, but to the impasse that results from the collision of cultural values as the bureaucracy is adapted to an island setting. Government administration has been truly Micronesianized, not only in the freely associated states, but in the wealthier and more modernized island territories to the north.

The island approach to administration, while understandable and defensible from an ideological viewpoint, has serious liabilities. The quality of government services is unacceptably low at present in the judgment of most Micronesians. The level of mediocrity in health care and in the schools, to say nothing of other departments, is a barrier to the human development to which the people of these island nations seem to aspire. But the addition of new programs will accomplish nothing other than waste additional government money if the management structures are not made more efficient. Moreover, the present government system has become too costly at a time when nations like FSM and the Republic of the Marshalls face serious budget cutbacks and the uncertainties of the post-Compact future. These countries simply don't have the money to continue paying three people to do the job of one or to add supplemental programs to do what the basic programs should be doing.

In the past, when life was simpler or when funds were more plentiful, it might have been sufficient to look the other way and let the management problems work themselves out in time. With the race for development begun in earnest, can we still allow ourselves this luxury? At very least, Micronesian leaders will have to acknowledge the problems for what they are and seriously consider whether deep changes in government administration are not imperative. If so, they will have to take the bold steps necessary to effect these changes-and dodge the stones and nasty accusations that will surely be hurled their way.