Latin America’s efforts to improve public policies are often undermined by politicised and obsolete civil services
FOR the past couple of years Bello has lived in Lima, Peru’s capital. The other day he had to do some official paperwork. Assured by the head of the office concerned, a personal acquaintance, that it would be fine to pass by the ministry the following day, he turned up only to be told that the secretary who carries out the necessary task was “on holiday”. The boss was “in a meeting”. In other words, come back another day. Fortunately, after a quick e-mail, the boss appeared and affably arranged for another secretary to wield the rubber stamp.
This trivial incident is an everyday occurrence in Latin America. Unless a citizen has a contact among the higher-ups, there is normally no happy ending of the sort that Bello enjoyed. The plodding inefficiency and red tape of public bureaucracies has become an unaffordable drag on the region and a source of growing frustration. Despite the economic slowdown, more Latin Americans are middle class than in the past. They are demanding a more sophisticated, efficient and less corrupt state. Decentralisation and the digital revolution pose additional challenges.
The region’s civil services suffer many vices. One is an obsession with procedures and hierarchies and a disdain for service and outcomes. Many Latin American civil servants must follow thick procedural codes but are not made accountable through performance targets. Organs of control fail to prevent corruption but instil a terror of initiative. For example, Carolina Trivelli, who set up a new social-development ministry in Peru in 2011-13, says she was subjected to an investigation because she allowed publication of a pamphlet that included data whose release required a formal ministerial resolution. That she, the minister, authorised it was not enough.
Another besetting sin is politicisation. Too often the civil service is staffed with political hangers-on, hired for loyalty rather than merit. Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s new president, is sacking thousands of political hacks rewarded with government jobs by his predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Conversely, competent civil servants risk being fired when a new minister or president comes in. And new presidents love to create new agencies without abolishing those they duplicate.
Political cronyism may explain why public-sector salaries tend to be higher than those in the private sector for low-level jobs but lower for senior grades, according to a study by CAF, a regional development bank. Typically, civil services lack clear career structures. For populist reasons, presidents have sometimes capped the pay of senior civil servants, making it impossible to recruit good, honest people.
Governments have tended to respond to a dysfunctional bureaucracy by creating islands of excellence, such as central banks and finance ministries. More recently, countries such as Brazil and Peru have improved the management of social ministries. Civil servants are far more likely to have a university degree than in the past.
Some countries have tried to go beyond such piecemeal improvements to create an integrated professional civil service. Only Chile has had a degree of success. This began with a law, approved with bipartisan support in 2003, which created an elite corps of senior public-sector managers who are chosen in open competition, subject to performance targets and well paid. Elsewhere, progress has been patchy. A study of the region’s civil services by the Inter-American Development Bank found improvement over the decade to 2013 in some of the worst-performing countries, but stagnation in Brazil and Mexico.
One of the improvers was Peru. It set up a civil-service agency in 2008, which has created a Chilean-style corps of public-sector managers. Under a law passed in 2013, 560,000 civil servants in national and local government will be transferred to a new professional contract, based on merit, evaluations and rewards for performance. This replaces a muddle of different contracts. But no workers have yet transferred, and many oppose the reform. The next government, to be chosen this year, may well lack the political will and the money to implement it.
Many of the most pressing policy tasks facing Latin American governments today, from tackling violent crime or the Zika virus to boosting productivity, require different state agencies at all levels of government to act in a co-ordinated manner. The region’s civil services have typically found this almost impossible. Islands of excellence are no longer enough. Creating a professional civil service is a slow business, and requires political consensus. If the region is to thrive in a harsher world, it is also essential.