Contemporary Development: Eyes on Local Challenges (Part 2)

Phew! It’s been more than a month already since the last post! I got lazy!

Well, to continue from where we left off… in the first part of our article, we discussed about the two primary barriers, resource constraints and human factors, which have led to various forms of challenges, short- and long- term, within the realm of development. We went on to dissect the development constraints into smaller, more digestible pieces, as the followings:

  • Resource constraints:

    • Internal constraint

    • External constraint

  • Human factors:

    • insufficient Knowledge

      • Inflexible public institutional structure

      • Ineffective means of capacity building

    • Insufficient Experience

      • Information deficiency

      • Experience from one country does not necessarily carry over to the next due to the distinct local characteristics (thus, leading to different strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges)

      • Overcrowding of development projects in a single area

With the godlike length of the previous article, I had no choice back then but to stop somewhere. So, this article will act as a continuation to the previous one, but shorter. We will discuss further about the second barrier (human factors) but rather than focusing on the capability of humans, we will look more into the context, the broader organizational settings, within which the workforce exist.

Again, to reiterate, please bear in mind that this is an opinion derived from personal knowledge and experience of mine. It is just to show you my perspective about the current state we, developing nations, are in. Thus, this article is by no means intended to convince you to believe, but rather, to complement what you already have, to put you into a thinking chair.

Last time, the furthest we reached was mentioning how significantly important information is to development because information allowed us to pinpoint the exact location (whether tangible or intangible) to where our limited resources should be allocated. We talked about how such information can help us identify the so-caleld “keystones” on which other development areas and many other possibilities of growth pivot.

And that is exactly why the absence or deficiency of information is the main drawback in our society, to be specific, the developing nations. This area is where challenges present and little attention received. Well, usually, in normal scenario, people develop hindsight right after some difficulties arise as consequences of their actions. But, this is not often the case with the problem of “deficient information”. Why do we not widely recognize it? Why is there information inadequacy?

Bureaucracy/Red Tape

First, let’s talk about Bureaucracy in public institution, excessive bureaucracy I mean. There is another term to denote this organizational or institutional abnormality (or probably it is seen as “normal” now) which is “Red Tape”.What is it? It is the idea that there are too many people in the organizational hierarchy doing too few things. This leads to unneeded complication, confusion, conflict, and challenge, all of which reduce productivity, slow down progress, and hinder action and decision-making. It also makes required information (for various purposes conducive to improvement) less available and accessible.

Bureaucracy: a small dose is good, but too much restrains you

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1. Misconveyance of information

Information is often misconveyed or simply goes missing as it gets filtered/distorted/cut short when going up or down through each layer of the vertical hierarchy within an organization/institution. Think about it; even between two people, they already see a portion of the exact same information differently. Now, imagine a hundred of people at different levels absorbing the same information, but only this time, from one level to the next, a bit of the information is missing or altered. This is what is happening in public institution in Cambodia, our case study, and in many developing countries with “red tape”.

It brings us to the classical experiment about the inaccuracy of information conveyance through a long line of people. Now, this is my favorite example of ineffective information channeling. The experiment goes like this. Gather a bunch of people. You pick one out of the group and tell him/her a story (just make it up). Then let that first person re-tell the story to the second person, and ask the second person to do the same to the third. Repeat this process until you get to the last person at the end of the line. What is interesting is that through this particular experiment, It is found that after going through this many people, the story you have told to the first person will turn into a much different one by the time the last person gets to hear it and re-tell the entire story again. This is the problem in our public institution. Red tape results in miscommunication and disruption of information flow.

2. Lag

Another challenge when you have information going through too many people is lagging. It is what it sounds like. The organization’s response to challenges and opportunities will be sluggish and less accurate.

I, myself, have had the most difficulties getting my hands on the information necessary for development research. I sometimes have to go through several different people (and even go through the same person twice) and even then, I sometimes end up getting what I don’t want and have to go through the organizational hierarchy again. It is frustrating and disappointing at the same time, especially when you see that the reason such inefficiency is happening is due to the dis-use of technology. There are people who still go about their work with a stack of notebooks.

And that, again, shows that you definitely get what you pay for. If the government does not increase spending (by a huge margin) on civil servants, the result will not be pretty. The thing is we are facing resource constraint that demands more efficient allocation, and that is a cache-22 problem, meaning you need A to get B, but you need B to get A. In our case, you need information to efficiently allocate resources to help increase public institutional efficacy, but you need enough public institutional efficacy to ensure efficient allocation of resources. It is a headache indeed.

Centralization of Authority

More than that, there is certain information that is inaccessible, but not because it deserves to be hidden or be highly classified; sometimes, even information related to the number of people in each department of an insitutution can be hard to obtained for reasons I cannot comprehend, but mostly, because of the unwillingness to cooperate (again, for reasons I cannot comprehend) and short-sighted vision of staff that fails to understand the positive impacts of the work that requires such information.

A thousand do, one decides

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…Which brings us to the second main problem, Centralization of Authority (though this is much related to “red tape”, I want to give it its own playing field). Well, this seems to contradict our nation’s on-going effort to deconcentrate and decentralize authority, the so-called D&D. But, look at it this way. It is one thing to implement D&D, but the question is iwhere exactly is the effort placed? Now, through the lens of my glasses, I have seen such effort mostly exerted in delegating responsibilities from national to sub-national levels. However, the glaring limitations are not occuring between the two domains, but within each domain. In other words, although decentralization is happening between the national and sub-national governments, within each of their own body, in contrast, authority is becoming more centralized at the higher level of administration. This, not only slows down greatly the work progress, but also creates overlapping and confusing functions of personnel because the decision making power is shifted upward.

From the mundane tasks to the more significant/pressing ones, the top officers is the ultimate decision making machine. The middle-management, who was once tasked with such responsibility, is now not empowered or encouraged to make decision on their own. They becomes afraid to make decision, and confusion arises because their actual roles and responsibities (what they are told to do) do not match with what written in the official papers (what they are supposed to do). The lack of accurate information leads to confusion in terms of who is doing what and who is responsible for what. This sometimes results in either overlapping or neglected functions and actions. Ultimately, people become reluctant to perform the very task they are supposed to do. This fear of making errors which discredit oneself might cause information to be passed on only enough to get the work done, but not done well, and only as much as it does not get them, the bearers of information, into trouble. As time passes, staff members at lower- and middle- levels might even lose their instrinsic work value and become demotivated. Therefore, the effect of centralization can be vast and long-lasting.

And, why should information deficiency be a major concern?

Note that, the one attractive feature of free market is letting the front people do the frontline work and make decision accordingly because they are the one most familiar and knowledgeable about what they are doing (due to their accumulated experience through everyday work and encounter), not the King or the president who is sitting in one place and signing official papers at the top (of course, I am exaggerating, but you know what I mean). Such efficient practice is exactly what is stripped away from the public sector when power is centralized.

As power is condensed into the hands of a small group of people in the public sector, it is also easy for them to allign policies with their self-interest. It also makes enforcement of laws/rules and regulations harder. Consequently, centralization of power/authority will give birth to the well-known disease, “corruption”.

These are the challenges that render public institution much less effective than it could have been. So, why do we need to care? Isn’t a good market and business environment enough for our national growth? The answer is No. Everything is connected within an intricate system, and a good country starts with good governance before all else. Why? Because public servants are practioners, the intermediate force that connects policies, actions and outcomes together. If the civil service is well-established within a well-functioned, sustainable and equitable system, the ease of doing business, the ease of access to crucial information needed for development will be that much easier.

And, why economics places so much focus on information? First, because economics loves the idea of having perfect information. Perfect information is one of the several assumptions of free market, something that allows free market to operate as it should. Perfect information is important in understanding what is demanded and what is supplied, where inputs can yield greatest outputs and outcomes, and when response to change should be made. Accurate information allows resources, be it money or knowledge, to be circulated in an efficient manner, and thus, generates greater social return. Since public sector produces public goods and services that supposedly have high fixed cost and yield return to all people in general, especially those at disadvantangeous positions (the poor, the vulnerable group, etc), which is an act that is often unachievable (high cost, high risk, free-rider problem, etc) and unattractive to private sectors, it is indispensable that reliable and valid information is available and accessible in a timely manner for public servants. This is why the above challenges demand prompt attention and response, especially for developing countries where potential for growth is high.

I hope that, after having read this article, whether or not you agree with my perception, you will take my points into consideration and factor at least a few of them into your decision making steps if you ever happen to be in the position to do so.

This is the end of the part 2, the final part, of this article. I hope you enjoy reading and absorbing new knowledge and experience. I will meet you again in our later article.