WORLD OF POLITICS AND MANAGEMENT
Close, yet confusing and conflictingby Dr Jamal Khan
MANY of us are confused and remain somewhat muddled about the relationship between politics and public sector management. We tend to think that the two are synonymous or interchangeable, that there is no or not much difference between the two entities, that politics and the public sector are substantively one and the same, and that they do not have distinct identity of their own. All these skewed assertions are erroneous. While politics is the authoritative allocation of values, the making of cardinal choices and the selection of momentous options, public sector management is concerned with the creation and sustenance of an environment in which decision-making and implementation can occur steadily, certain goals and objectives can be targeted and achieved regularly and the process can be carried out with the deployment of personnel skills and capabilities.
A common misunderstanding is rife all around us that politics is deeply embedded only in the public sector. It is only, in part, true and glib generalisations conceal the other, and more important, part of the two entities. Noteworthy is that politics is not only partisan and negative but also developmental, mobilisational and participatory. Politics is a fundamental human activity — pervasive, inclusive, generic, universal, relational, valuational and allocative by nature. As such, politics is also a kindred part of the private or corporate sector. It very much characterises business enterprises and own-account activities in terms of what they choose and how they choose what to do, why they choose what they have chosen, the process and modus operandi through which they get things done, the network they maintain to get what they want by means of relationships, bargaining and negotiations, the surpluses or returns thus generated on their investment, how, where and when they invest and reinvest resources, and, last but not the least, who they build and sustain their strategic alliances with.
While talking about politics and public management, we tend to talk — whether we are informed or not — about conventional, negative, partisan, power and elite politics. It is the kind of politics with which people are generally familiar, and it is usually the only kind of political experience they have gone through in their lives and civic culture. Hence, when many talk about politics and management, their reference point usually is conventional power politics — characterising and interfacing public management in myriad ways.
The issue here is that conventional partisan politics is, usually, divisive, self-seeking, and group-aggrandising. Non-elite and hard-working people ordinarily get turned off by this kind of politics precisely because they end up losing a lot by partisan skulduggery. When they see and continue to experience red tape, run-arounds, tardiness, delay, denials, false promises and non-achievement — frustrating their work and life — and bribery and graft — determining whether their work gets done or not — they, in so many words, tend to attribute their conditions to politics and officiousness, get upset about subordinating management to party politics, lose respect for public management, and assail public sector with diatribes. People ordinarily have little or no time, mood or patience for analytical distinctions and generally lump one category of actions with another. Distinction also fails when many do not seem to understand or realise that management is often misused by politicians for their partisan ends. In the process, management is under fire, getting disgraced and blamed and losing credibility in the eyes of stakeholders.
On the other hand, the real-life situation might have been quite different if developmental, mobilisational, grassroots and people-focused politics were to play its legitimate role and expand its involvement in public life. With that kind of political base, culture, direction and reach, management most likely might have been an activist, ameliorative, responsive, participatory, value-adding and people-based exercise.
In its turn, management might have been a credible beneficiary in terms of greater and quicker output generation and delivery, higher believability and dependability, customer focus, cooperation and coordination, time and cost saving, momentum and progress, equity and balance, fairness and fair play, justice and access, harmony, trust and loyalty, capacity and capability, and reach and outreach. Development politics, by constantly interfacing and regularly impacting public management, might have, in all probability, strengthened the interdisciplinary and multidimensional nature and basis of social sciences.
Partisan, power, adversarial and manipulative politics hurts and continues to inflict all kinds of punishment on public management. First, when political criteria are swayed by group/party interest, vested interest, conflict, parochialism and loyalty, the quality of political activity drops precipitously. Second, if unrestrained, the intrusive politics can be intense, confrontational and punitive — introducing instability, stalemate, polarisation, fear, inaction and non-decision. It is difficult, even nearly impossible, that personnel can be effective in their work under those conditions. It is hard to see how they can decisively plan, formulate, appraise, analyse, implement, operate and evaluate programmes, projects and initiatives.
No less significant is the baneful and corrosive influence of wrong-headed politics on, for instance, human resource development/management, industrial relations, organisational law, career management, management training, customer service, policy management, and operating culture. When such politics takes roots, the dubious practices spread and contaminate the system, viz. putting square pegs in round holes, sycophancy, opportunism, wrong personnel selection, recruitment and placement, arbitrary transfer, unworthy promotion, promotion and job denial, demotion and separation, poor performance, demoralisation, alienation, frustration, despair, fatalism, dependence, timidity, anxiety, and fear.
Over and beyond this, this genre of politics affects management in terms of management’s functional areas, e.g. policy, personnel, finance, budget, procurement, information processing, customer service, marketing, industrial relations, organisational law, programme evaluation, project management, field management, management services, and security/ maintenance. For instance, policy analysis and prescription can be distorted; personnel can be politicised and destabilised; financial and budgetary management can remain not only arcane and centralised but also politically-controlled; procurement can be saddled with party operatives/supporters taking over the process in their own hands; information processing can be exclusionary; customer services may suffer from selective attention and general neglect; and marketing may be cartelised and betray oligopoly/monopoly behaviour.
Can politics help management? No and yes. It is in the negative when politics oversteps, remains unbridled, does not know when and where to stop and draw a line, remains zealous of its power and penetration, refuses to give a break to civil society and its public responsibility, does not show much regard for non-governmental organisations, private sector organisations, community-based organisations and advocacy groups, flouts all the broadly-accepted analytical and evaluative criteria , does not respect benchmarks and measures , and so forth. However, politics can as well be helpful or instrumental in public management in certain well-defined domains, viz. transformational political/policy leadership; bold and innovative policy intervention; pushing new frontiers and opening up new ventures, opportunities and entrepreneurship; driving reforms, renewals and revitalisations; mobilising and involving people and target communities in a participatory module; execution of people-oriented and welfare-maximising party programmes and mandates; pushing inclusive social, cultural, economic, financial, labour, technological, business and entrepreneurial legislation; incentivating and recognising innovation, creativity, initiative and drive; reducing and alleviating poverty; reversing dependency and marginalization; and enhancing and distributing income and opportunities.
It is unlikely that politics in any country can ever be contained in institutions, organisations and communities. It is not desirable either. What is, however, doable is to examine and institutionalise people-friendly politics. A society, for instance, can strengthen constitutionalism, the separation of powers, the rule of law, human rights, natural justice, citizen/customer activism, institutional/organisational accountability, and media participation. What is also doable is to embark on a number of projects: strengthening and influencing the right kind of responsive of politics and political culture; the kind which mediates, adjusts and negotiates in the larger society; the kind which prioritises service and puts it in tandem with power; the kind which does not hog up everything and does not get totalitarian; the kind which builds morale, momentum and motivation; the kind which builds trust, partnership and capability; the kind which moves and takes people with it; the kind which complements management and technology; the kind which is wedded to growth, development, empowerment and redistribution; the kind which appreciates structural differentiation and functional specificity; the kind which respects interdependence, coexistence, power-sharing and operational autonomy; the kind which does not usurp or encroach; the kind which observes transparency and accountability; and much more in a similar vein. Meanwhile, life goes on, conventional politics goes on, distancing goes on, and scarred management goes on. One can wish hard, but, life being what it is, there is no miracle around the corner.
Dr Jamal Khan was a professor of public sector management at the University of the West Indies. email@example.com.
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