Driving a Ferrari with the Engine of a Lada

March 27, 2012

When Paul Bremer dissolved the army and the Baath Party, he should have dissolved one more institution: the Iraqi civil service. This might be considered an extreme and irrational step to suggest, but in reality the civil service is a main cause for many of the problems we face today, including lack of transparency and ongoing corruption.

The public service sector in Iraq has become one of the main institutions that hamper our progress. While it may have been efficient and good for a time in the past, today it is inefficient, slow and archaic. It is an institution that does not correspond to today’s needs.

The civil service sector should translate the vision of the people and the leaders for the future; here, it is the other way around. The size, limitations and difficulties of this institution shape the vision and plans of our political parties and of the people.

The civil service has come to epitomize not getting things done and a place that kills any initiative or creativity. It is a place where corruption is rife and transparency is at its worst. This is because it is a remnant of two cultures: the old Soviet-style regime and the dictatorship of the Baath Party. Both were natural habitats for corruption and secrecy.

When the regime changed, the machine stayed. This created a gap between the needs of the day and the reality of the means to achieve them. Today, even if the state wanted to be transparent and truly fight corruption, it would not be able to do so with the current public sector, because it is not configured to be transparent and not based on today’s ideals.

More than anything else, the civil service has become a tool for political parties to score points and provide false employment for electioneering purposes. As a result, the institution is heavily driven by certain individuals and their political party’s agenda and not the public good or sound governance and economic principles.

Few institutions are able to tell exactly what their mandate is or how many people they need to get their job done. In the U.K., for example, the last number I heard given for the civil service work force was 400,000 people for a population of over 60 million. In the Kurdistan Region, we have over a million civil servants for a population of about 5 million.

Most of us have faced the daunting and funny challenge of trying to get something done in a government office. The typical scenario is to enter a room with three desks and nine people all doing the same thing: eating sunflower seeds, taking the document from you, continuing to talk to each other as if you are a machine, stamping and signing the document and giving it back at once so you can go do the same thing in the next room.

In the age of e-governments, WikiLeaks and social media, we still use pens and paper and are completely secretive about our data and very inefficient when it comes to getting anything done.

Perhaps my opening suggestion was a bit extreme, but it expresses of the gravity of the situation that we do not feel how urgently it needs to be addressed, especially after we have seen how L. Paul Bremer was a master of not getting anything done.

The reality is that the system is too old to modernize, too rigid to reform, too slow to move quickly and too closed to open. Minor tweaks here and there won’t do much. It needs a complete overhaul.

This step would be very unpopular but it would be the right thing to do. After all, you cannot brag about a Ferrari when it has the engine of a Lada.

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