what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Why Romania politics is so rotten - path dependency

In our relentless celebration of the "new", we undervalue what has been written even a few years ago. Somehow we assume that it is passe - that we have built on it and used it to move to a new peak of understanding (the eternal illusion of progress - "upward and onward"!). The reality is rather amnesia and, at best, reinvention
For example, aasily the most useful paper for those trying to understand lack of governance capacity in many countries I’ve worked in during the past 20 years is one written by Sorin Ionita 5 years ago and was languishing in my library until I discovered it while revising my Varna paper- Poor policy-making and how to improve it in states with weak institutions. His focus is on Romania but the explanations he offers for the poor governance in that country has resonance for many other countries -
• The focus of the political parties in that country on winning and retaining power to the exclusion of any interest in policy – or implementation process
• The failure of political figures to recognise and build on the programmes of previous regimes
• Lack of understanding of the need for „trade-offs” in government; the (technocratic/academic) belief that perfect solutions exist; and that failure to achieve them is due to incompetence or bad intent.
• The belief that policymaking is something being centered mainly in the drafting and passing of legislation. „A policy is good or legitimate when it follows the letter of the law − and vice versa. This legalistic view leaves little room for feasibility assessments in terms of social outcomes, collecting feedback or making a study of implementation mechanisms. What little memory exists regarding past policy experiences is never made explicit (in the form of books, working papers, public lectures, university courses, etc): it survives as a tacit knowledge had by public servants who happened to be involved in the process at some point or other. And as central government agencies are notably numerous and unstable – i.e. appearing, changing their structure and falling into oblivion every few years - institutional memory is not something that can be perpetuated”
Ionita adds other „pre-modern” aspects of the civil service – such as unwillingness to share information and experiences across various organisational boundaries. And the existence of a „dual system” of poorly paid lower and middle level people in frustrating jobs headed by younger, Western-educated elite which talks the language of reform but treats its position as a temporary placement on the way to better things. He also adds a useful historical perspective -
Entrenched bureaucracies have learned from experience that they can always prevail in the long run by paying lip service to reforms while resisting them in a tacit way. They do not like coherent strategies, transparent regulations and written laws – they prefer the status quo, and daily instructions received by phone from above. This was how the communist regime worked; and after its collapse the old chain of command fell apart, though a deep contempt for law and transparency of action remained a ‘constant’ in involved persons’ daily activities. Such an institutional culture is self-perpetuating in the civil service, the political class and in society at large.
A change of generations is not going to alter the rules of the game as long as recruitment and socialization follow the same old pattern: graduates from universities with low standards are hired through clientelistic mechanisms; performance when on the job is not measured; tenure and promotion are gained via power struggles.
In general, the average Romanian minister has little understanding of the difficulty and complexity of the tasks he or she faces, or he/she simply judges them impossible to accomplish. Thus they focus less on getting things done, and more on developing supportive networks, because having collaborators one can trust with absolute loyalty is the obsession of all local politicians - and this is the reason why they avoid formal institutional cooperation or independent expertise. In other words, policymaking is reduced to nothing more than politics by other means. And when politics becomes very personalized or personality-based, fragmented and pre-modern, turf wars becomes the rule all across the public sector.”

The new, post ’89 elites, who speak the language of modernity when put in an official setting, can still be discretionary and clannish in private. Indeed, such a disconnection between official, Westernized discourse abroad and actual behavior at home in all things that really matter has a long history in Romania. 19th century boyars sent their sons to French and German universities and adopted Western customs in order to be able to preserve their power of patronage in new circumstances − anticipating the idea of the Sicilian writer di Lampedusa that “everything has to change in order to stay the same”. Social theorists have even explained along these lines why, before Communism, to be an official, a state employee or a lawyer was much more common among the national bourgeoisie than to become an industrialist or merchant: because, as a reflection of pervasive rent-seeking, political entrepreneurship was much more lucrative than economic entrepreneurship.
This also shows why foreign assistance is many times ineffective in these states, and is seldom able to alter the ways of the locals.
This series of explanations for Romania's poor governance ratings is an example of what the academics call "path dependency" - the past constraining the possibilities of the present. My Varna paper spent so much space summarising the various papers that I couldn't actually address the question of what the reformer's strategy might be in such countries. I hope to explore that in a future post.

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