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Can the ‘ActionAid bureaucracy’ work efficiently?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 09:48

 Last week, I visited two agencies that we were prior warned would typify how ‘slowly things happen in the Washington bureaucracy’ - the first one was a visit to the National Social Security Office to apply for a Social Security Number and the other was a Learning Visit to the Library of Congress. Both these visits challenged my understanding and made me have a second thoughts about the criticisms we often have with bureaucracies.

For beginners, me inclusive, the Business Dictionary and Reader, defines bureaucracy as ‘a system of administration distinguished by… (1) clear hierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships’. It adds that ‘once instituted, bureaucracies are difficult to dislodge or change’.

So, difficult to dislodge indeed that several public-sector reforms have failed to transform the public sector and instead either created parallel structures as we see with some quasi government agencies called commissions or authorities whose functions appear to duplicate more traditional government ministries or privatized services. In the end, these often high-cost parallel bodies never replace bureaucracies, neither do private agencies - but are riddled with accountability misnomers and high-end corruption.

In his article, ‘making bureaucracies work’, Terrence Wood argues that the problem is we don’t understand the cause of the problems we seek to address. ‘As anyone who’s ever suffered a medical misdiagnosis can tell you, it’s very hard to fix a problem when you’re mistaken about its cause. Get the diagnosis wrong and you will get the treatment wrong. Get the treatment wrong and, odds are, things won’t improve’. He identifies 3 common causes of bureaucratic failure: a) low staff capacity; b) dislocated incentives; and c) biased norms.

Considering the above dilemma from an ActionAid view point, I recalled an analogy by the Secretary General of Civicus who gave a keynote about INGO bureaucracy at one of our Director’s Meetings in Pretoria in 2014 and compared us with the prehistoric dinosaurs that couldn’t adapt to changes and are now in memory. Closer to ActionAid Uganda, we have been battling with all the bureaucratic features above. Our decision making, most of the time is painfully slow, we have rigid and hierarchical procedures, such as in writing and getting activity concepts approved, sometimes junior staff claim their Line Managers take weeks if not months to respond to 4-6 page concepts. Our policies and procedures are often interpreted in a very narrow and impersonal ways, even when we have waivers, which are often abused.

So, is our problem staff who do not know how to write good activity concepts and thus requiring capacity building or is it poor conceptualization of activities at planning, making concepts, all the more difficult to write? Is the problem busy and overloaded or incompetent Line Managers? Is the problem a culture of inefficiency, in which everyone believes, ‘things just have to be slow? Is the problem in Finance where officers ask for too many unnecessary things in the name of transparency? Whatever reason anyone is inclined to, and they could well be all the above, I do not find any reason why ActionAid Uganda shouldn’t be more efficient.  

Back to my visits to the two ‘Washington Bureaucracies’ above, I picked four lessons: a) have the right staff with knowledge and the right attitude; b) simplify requirements and procedures and make these known in advance; c) have a service culture; d) go digital.

From the Social Security Officer, I saw that order and discipline is crucial, despite many people seeking the same service - we all queued and there was no favouritism or cutting corners as we often see in Uganda. At the Library of Congress where hundreds if not thousands visit daily, the rules were clear and we were allocated specific times like 3 minutes per stop and respected that as the next group was always waiting. In both cases, the number of requirements were very minimal and known in advance - back home, we ask for too many unnecessary documents and keep shifting goal posts. At the Library of Congress, I decided to apply to for a Library Card and behold, in 15 minutes, I had it and all I was asked was my passport, I filled in a form online, took a picture and got my ID - compare this with tragedy of getting a national ID in Uganda!  Above all, it was the efficiency of the personnel handling us that was most impressive - they clearly had a service orientation and were passionate and happy about their jobs. Do we have enough of such staff ActionAid?

It is the above lessons that, under the leadership of Christine, our Human Resource and Organisational Efficiency (HROE) Director, who I dreamt about, in my afternoon sister on Easter Monday, that we shall overcome the frustrations of bureaucracy in ActionAid Uganda. A good foundation has been set in the draft Country Strategy Paper Five Section 5 (a) ad (b) that we shall build upon to get the right people, culture and structure as well as use IT more.

The Writer is the Country Director of ActionAid Uganda.