On How to Turn a Bureaucrat into a Useful Person

Fernando Ravsberg*

An official of the Cuban telephone company. (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba needs to transform the civil service bureaucracy, a Spanish specialist in public administration issues told me. We immediately got into a long and involved conversation about what could be the key to that process.

He claims that Cuban public administration should replace the “legitimacy” once held from being tied to the revolution with “the legitimacy of the people, whereby civil service functionaries have to understand that their purpose is to serve the citizens.”

Nevertheless, he says that both the experience Spain and of other countries show that it’s useless “to expect a functionary to reduce their own discretion or their power to rule over citizens. Nobody does that by choice.”

“The way forward is to give more power to citizens and to protect them legally. In this way, that pressure will change the behavior of government employees. Procedures should have clearly regulated steps and well-defined limits.”

I replied that life on the island is governed by directives, ministerial decisions and special provisions, some of them in direct conflict with the law. There are so many bureaucratic regulations, combined with a lack of laws that — in practice — functionaries and employees legislate rather than the elected deputies.

One only has to recall that for two decades a resolution, which few could read, denied access to hotels by Cuban citizens although the constitution very specifically gave them that right.

I then explained that Cuba’s approach to “reducing arbitrariness is to institutionalize the revolution, which could happen if there were legal regulations that were binding on everyone – both citizens and public officials alike.”

Upon finishing that conversation, I received an email from Yamina Valdes (a bureaucrat with the state-owned telephone monopoly) threatening to cut off my Internet service if didn’t immediately show that I’m a journalist. That’s nothing new…they do that every year when I’m about to leave the country.

They are so focused on preventing anyone from having Internet service without permission that they don’t have time to curb corruption within the phone company (from clandestine phone-card sales to the disappearance of thousands-of-miles-long underwater cable).

Incompetence is the other big issue of the Cuban bureaucracy. Actually the little bureaucrat on the island knows little. One can walk from one desk to another without anyone being able to tell you what the process is for carrying out the simplest procedure.

They will always send you to the wrong office, and then demand a document that no one asked for; and when they deny you your right to something, they don’t explain why. It’s quite true the saying that the bureaucrat has a problem for what should be every solution

Interestingly, the polls in Spain also show that “what causes the greatest dissatisfaction and anger among people are incomprehensible responses of government employees that cannot be understood using common sense.”

Giving power to citizens is the way to get the government employee on the right track. Photo: Raquel Perez

It seems that to move in this direction it’s necessary for “the process of the recruitment of civil servants be based on merit and ability, demonstrated through a competitive examination.” This would mean after taking an exam, the most qualified person would be selected for the job.

“We’re talking about lower and middle strata functionaries,” explained the specialist.  With a smile he added, “Unfortunately, most senior positions are hand-picked, chosen based on political affinities in almost every country in the world.”

I asked him what the principal characteristics are of a good public official, and he said: “The first is their being able to abide by the law, being able to withstand all of the pressures, even when these come from their own superiors.”

The second has to do with ethical training: “They have to be satisfied with their wages and resist daily temptations. This is a moral principle because there’s no salary large enough to prevent an official from becoming corrupt.”

Finally, regarding the most important principle of all, “It’s being clear that a public official is there to serve the citizens.” They are the ones who, after all, pay the salaries of the public employees in any country.

Imagine how much easier your life would be if when entering an office you were clearly explained the steps to be taken in whatever proceeding, the laws that protect you, the rights you possess, the time the process will take, and also the refusal of any gratuities on the grounds that the official’s job is to serve.

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original commentary published by BBC Mundo.