A very civil service (Monocle)


The international magazine, Monocle, which would appear to be read by wealthy and knowing global jetsetters, proposes that countries outsource those public services that others do better. As it argues, “From the ancient Greeks onwards, wise governments have seen the benefits of outsourcing … This is Monocle’s cabinet reshuffle.” Its proposed ministries for “keeping us safe”, “On the money”, and “Protecting our culture” are sensible enough, but under “Making life better”, its “Ministry of Design and Technology” and “Minister of Life Improvement” may be going just a little too far.

A very civil service: Nation states
by Ivan Carvalho
Monocle, Vol. 1, Issue 9

Do bureaucrats do it better? Put the question to ordinary citizens in many parts of the world and the answer is a resounding no. From transport to the treasury, dissatisfaction with public services runs high, especially in those countries stricken by corruption or one-time communist regimes now plagued by Kafka-esque bureaucracies.

Yet developing nations don’t have a monopoly on incompetence when it comes to running voernment agencies. The G7 countries have their share of bungling civil servants, whether they are mismanaging public railways (the US) or misplacing millions of pension records (Japan). Then there’s the glacial pace of Italy’s public sector employees known as fannulloni (“do nothings”) who, when they’re not taking long weekends at the taxpayers’ expense, are warming seats at cosy desk jobs. Monocle thinks it’s time cabinet ministers faced reality and admitted that trying to do it all in-house, while noble and perhaps good for the national ego, doesn’t necessarily yield the best results. We believe governments should take a cue from the business world and outsource services when home-grown methods fail to live up to expectations.

Handing over such tasks to the private sector is nothing new; the Ancient Greeks and Romans both outsourced functions that would be unthinkable to pry from civil servants’ fingers today.

“The Greeks outsourced defence and the Romans did it with taxes,” explains Robin Lane Fox, lecturer at New College, Oxford, and author of The Classical World. “The Romans even did it with taxes in the provinces and let local agents do their bidding. When they found their own cavalrymen were getting to heavy they brought in the Spanish to ride for them instead.”

Countries in dire straits with a state-run airline or airport operator — fertile ground for technocrats to run amok — should call Lufthansa. And seeing how major investment banks regularly deal with raising bonds for governments, we think they could go a step further. If you’re Georgia, why not farm out your finance ministry to Switzerland’s bankers?

With conscription consigned to the dustbin, we think defence ministries are ripe candidates for outsourcing. Small states have limited means to organise and train recruits. Better to hire the Finnish Army’s Jaeger marines to monitor the border for unfriendlies.

Outsourcing’s advantage lies in the fact that private hires offer more transparency and accountability, two concepts entrenched bureaucracies are not famous for. It lets lawmakers dedicate more time to debating the hot-button issues of the day such as immigration, healthcare and pension reform. And should anything go amiss, it’s easier to fire the contractor.

Employing outsiders often implies getting the private sector involved,  but there are public agencies making the headlines as examples to follow. Take Finland. Its education ministry is a big proponent of innovation,  and the country is a leader in R&D spending. The lean and mean Finns have a responsive bureaucracy — 13 ministries, of half of what Italy operates with — showing that “good enough for government work” isn’t necessarily something to be laughed at.

Below we’ve looked at how we would organise a modern nation that’s keen on accountability and efficiency. At the top of the pyramid there are still elected officials in parliament, but the cabinet oversees ministries that are slimmed down to a very small management team that would function no differently than a company board or steering committee. We’ve also shaken up the traditional structure by creating new ministries and redefining the roles of old ones. To shake things up even more, we put the ministries out to tender to have them run by a mix of friendly foreign governments better suited for the role, universities and respected companies.

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