Bureaucracy isn’t the enemy

Posted: January 17, 2012 in Ethical decision-making, Labour History
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English: The Buddhist Institute was founded on...

The Buddhist Institute - one of Cambodia's most prominent civil associations

Last week I reported about wrangling in Cambodia regarding a proposed law to regulate associations.

I thought it might be worth exploring what might lay behind the civil groups and NGOs distrust of the government’s intentions (other than the not-so-distant memory of government repression).

One concern is that the government will mis-use its regulatory power and intervene in associations’ internal affairs.

A second is the law will give vested interests another lever with which they can put the squeeze on ordinary Cambodians.

Both are possible. However that is the half empty side of the glass. On the flip side, a closer relationship between government and associations also brings the possibility of two positive changes:

1. More bureaucracy means a shift from charismatic authority to Rational-legal authority. In plain English: Decisions are more likely to be made consistent with previous decisions and other related policies. They become less arbitrary and more predictable. In such an environment, interest groups have to make better use of argument by analogy and court advocacy to bring about change, instead of merely appealing to the powers that be. In short they will need to professionalise.

2. By working closely with associations, the government legitimises them and obliges itself to work with them. In developed nations, the experience has been that bureaucrats, politicians and interest groups start to work in a symbiotic manner. This is sometimes called “the Iron Triangle“. Regulation is a two-way street; it cannot be imposed without some kind of feedback loop. That gives civil associations a way to press their case which – at least in Cambodia – they have not had until now.

The wealthy have always been able to gain access to politicians; bureaucracy at least levels the playing field somewhat. I am optimistic that this change will bring about more good than bad, even if it is prima facie cumbersome. The challenge, I suspect, will be preventing it from being undermined by corruption.

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