Successful formulation and implementation of public policy requires the presence of a well-functioning administrative apparatus.
A major challenge for many countries is to establish clear procedures for a merit-based recruitment of competent civil servants and thereafter provide suitable training.
Undertaking substantial administrative reforms, that potentially risk being opposed by powerful bureaucrats who fear the loss of their privileged positions, requires a strong political commitment.
Patrimonialism has often proven to be a major obstacle that has thwarted radical administrative reforms. Max Weber described patrimonialism as a form of political domination where the authority rests on the personal, bureaucratic and arbitrary power exercised by a royal household and under the direct control of the ruler, who extends personal favours without limitations on the exercise of authority.
Under such circumstances, a merit-based system gives way to other considerations such as political and personal loyalty and membership of particular social, political or religious groups.
In many of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia that I have studied, civil servants have often complained of increased political interference that has undermined bureaucratic initiative and bureaucratic neutrality and is a major source of demotivation in the public sector.
Political leaders may, for example, resort to clientelism with a focus on ensuring that their supporters receive a large share of government goods and services even when these are aimed at vulnerable sections of the population. They may disregard seniority and the track record of officials and appoint their favourite bureaucrats to key (and often prestigious) posts. And despite being competent, those out of favour may have to settle for less attractive and so-called “punishment” postings.
Excessive political interference can affect effective implementation of public policy when the wisdom of qualified civil servants is overridden by dubious political interests. But civil servants themselves may also be tempted to seek favours from politicians in the hope of furthering their careers (and income).
The unholy nexus between corrupt politicians, private contractors and disloyal bureaucrats contributes to an enormous wastage of public resources. It creates and furthers social distrust of political and administrative structures. And the intended and deserving beneficiaries of government programmes risk being excluded.
But political interference can also have a positive influence on public policy. Bureaucrats do not have the ability to radically change or adapt policies that, despite political interest, may have inherent weaknesses.
Without sustained political interest and support, public policies risk being ad-hoc, untargeted and under-funded.
For successful implementation to take place, bureaucrats (as implementers) must also be in regular contact with, and provide regular and unbiased feedback to, politicians (as policymakers).