The “Deep Administration” in Tunisia: Is Change Impossible?

2016-03-18    |   

Article 15 of the Tunisian Constitution defines the role of public administration and states that it is a system “at the service of the citizen and the public interest; it shall be organized and shall operate in accordance with the principles of impartiality, equality, continuity of public services, and the rules of transparency, integrity, efficiency and accountability”. This definition highlighted new principles of administrative work that edge closer to the idea of administrative performance, which achieves its aims by establishing certain precepts; namely, respect for the principles of neutrality and transparency in public services.

Accordingly, the Constitution’s stipulations transform the administration from a system that is under the purview of the ruling power into an institution that serves the citizen. The re-envisioning of the administration’s role in this way constitutes a revolution at the conceptual level. However, the possibility of moving this transformation out of the context of the Constitution, and into the offices and headquarters of the actual administration, must be explored – along with the obstacles that these changes may face.

1.   The Old Bureaucracy Confronts the New Tools of Government

It appears that the long historical legacy of the Tunisian administration which is built on an intractable bureaucracy, is firmly in control of the administration’s direction. Despite a series of jolts to the system, it has not managed to shed the mantle of the ruling authority. Thus, the administration is still dependent upon a calcified organization that has divided and dismantled responsibilities; over time, it has transformed into a cover for evading decision-making and avoiding the shouldering of responsibilities. The administrative organization concentrates its efforts on ensuring that its decisions are legitimate and lawful, rather than striving to achieve results and shape public policy. This, in turn, has transformed the majority of administrative procedures –which should be means to an end– into ends in and of themselves, rather than instruments for developing public services. Thus, all of the administration’s efforts are focused on guaranteeing respect for procedure, rather than working to achieve the goals that those procedures were actually established to serve. This inflation of procedures has created a bloated bureaucratic administrative body, one that is not effective or beneficial when it comes to improving administrative services.

The fundamental transformation of this bureaucratic administrative system, from the changes that are necessary to the legal system to changing unsound financial and administrative behaviors, is a venture that would appear to have consequences for many. The ruling authorities, for their part, seem wary at the prospect of losing control over the administration, should they accept lessening the strength of the bureaucracy. Underscoring this wariness is the continued apprehension over the issue of transparency in administrative dealings, and hesitation at involving the citizenry in decision-making. There is no better evidence for this than in the Tunisian parliament, where approval of an access to information law was subjected to a delay of more than two years after the government withdrew the law, as it was in the final stages of approval. This was accompanied by a controversy specifically in connection to exceptions to access to information. Likewise, numerous officials continue to refrain from making administrative decisions out of fear that they will be subject to questioning and investigations. All this has changed the administration into a lifeless body that only moves in response to electric shocks from the top, and which takes no interest in the consequences of sluggishness and the lack of decision-making; whether they lead to the waste of public money or social disorder.

Indeed, the aspects of the Constitution that affirm the principles of transparency, participation, efficiency, good governance, and combating corruption have still not been implemented in a sufficient manner to fulfill the new constitutional requirements. With the exception of a limited number of initiatives, which are mostly the result of international requirements mandated by international lending institutions, we have not seen the broad transformations in the modes of conduct necessary to bring about a revolution in the Tunisian administration.

Likewise, we have not seen any comprehensive impact on the realities of day-to-day dealings with the administration. The administration has instead continued to pursue its methods of impenetrability and obscurity. The governments that have come to power in recent years have typically claimed that other priorities exist that must take precedence over reforming the administration, for example, organizing elections, addressing terrorist threats, and salvaging what they can of the economic sectors. At the same time, a high number of conflicts, problems, and emergencies have preoccupied the Tunisian administration. It is as if the administration were a fireman extinguishing scattered outbreaks of flames, with no ability to define a clear vision or direction.

There are a number of initiatives that remain ineffective because they have not been integrated into a comprehensive vision built on employees’ ownership of the reforms, and the guiding vision that is steering them. Examples of such initiatives include reforming public policies and the civil service system, updating human resources management, establishing decentralization, developing administrative measures that improve performance based on efficiency, effectiveness, and economy in spending.

On the other hand, passive opposition to change is a real challenge facing discussions of reform. This kind of opposition, which originates within the administration’s bureaucracy itself, can be explained by way of several expressions, the most important of which is an unspoken fear of losing privileges. Accompanying this is the fear of change in the status quo, which is the primary motivator behind the adoption of the expression “deep administration”.

This is an administration that has resisted reform by working to reduce all reform processes into administrative procedures that have no impact. One of the ironies of administrative reform efforts is the attempt to control a bureaucracy of elites; these efforts have actually reinforced the elites’ control. This can be explained, in part, by the fact that the very same elites whose influence is supposed to be limited by the reforms remain in control; these same elites are the ones putting reform measures into place and implementing them. In order to limit the corruption of reform efforts, popular monitoring mechanisms must be created within civil society for the various stages of reform.

2.   Loyalty to the State vs. Loyalty to Politics

For more than fifty years, the Tunisian administration has been bound to presidential rule and subjected to political authority, which has been primarily embodied by the president. This has negatively impacted approaches to management and decision-making within the administration. It has distorted its role as a means of implementing public policy. [The acts of] regulating public policy and its objectives, identifying major projects, and appointing key officials, have all been fundamentally subjected to the hierarchy of authority. In turn, this produced a president who dominated an administration bereft of neutrality; the administration was transformed into a political tool serving the regime by expending significant energies to carry out the regime’s particular wishes. The predominance of a logic of loyalty to an individual, rather than to the state, ensured the absence of any means of effective accountability.

The only means of accountability was concentrated in the hand of one party, the president. Popular participation was further weakened due to the absence of free and fair elections, and the impossibility of exercising peaceful pressure from society either regarding decision-making or evaluating public policy. During more than half a century of presidential rule, rarely was accountability exercised, or an official dismissed due to poor performance or corruption, or even for failing to execute their tasks. The exceptions were rare cases in which an official was dismissed because the president was displeased with that individual. This has reinforced a culture of impunity, and contributed to the consolidation of [political] control over the administration.

Starting in 2011, however, new forms of opposition emerged, responding both to the failures of political authority in the administration of public affairs as well as to its inability to produce solutions to social problems. In the beginning, this opposition took on hostile forms; for example, harsh criticism and protests due to a lack of confidence in the state apparatus, and its ability to respond to demands. Gradually they took on a more peaceable nature as new means of accountability which materialized as civil society and the media acquired the ability to apply pressure, although this ability remains limited. For this reason, the slowness or incapability of responsiveness has been pushing Tunisian society, over time, to return to more hostile forms of protest – as was the case with the protests at the end of January 2016, which nearly threw the country into a whirlpool of chaos.

But the changes made towards establishing an effective, peaceful system of accountability remain incomplete. The Tunisian administration’s response to peaceful accountability mechanisms has been limited in comparison to its swift responses to more forceful means. Likewise, the strong and ongoing influence that the political retains over administrative work is clear evidence of just how brittle the administration’s foundation is, and how incapable it is of managing itself independently of political influence. The newly formed democratic regime in Tunisia continues to bolster the weight of political parties, which will strive to reinforce their own standing by lobbying the administration and working to consolidate their control through patronage mechanisms. All this, coupled with the long historical legacy of the administration’s allegiance to a political party, will eventually prevent the constitutional principle of administrative neutrality from being realized – rendering the changes that have taken place harbingers of something that will never materialize.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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