There are two major challenges that concern civil servants. They are separate but interrelated. The first, and more important one in a universal sense (which applies to everyone), is the dichotomy or division between chaos and order. This is a generic problem. The world is full of chaos, and creation myths in all religious and cultural traditions deal with it. These traditions attribute divine or Godlike human intervention to create “habitable order” out of chaos.
The expression “habitable order” is the major goal for any society, household or individual. Order is characterised by a world that is predictable and where actions have clearly associated results, while chaos is the world of the unpredictable. It is human society that has evolved a sophisticated set of rules along with incentives and punishments that make life “habitable”.
But the issue is not of order vs. chaos in a stark manner but of the balance between the two. The Chinese Taoist tradition defines it as yin and yang; life is a balancing act between this duality. These elements are also internalised within an individual and reflect the need for the individual to develop a truthful internal dialogue that mediates between order and chaos inherent within them. The brain is divided into the two hemispheres which have specific functions that react differently depending on this duality.
Over time, social order tends to be rigid, static and tyrannical. This may be useful for those in the upper reaches of hierarchies that are necessary to preserve order. A viable and efficient order should allow for upward mobility based on competence and effort. At the same time, there has to be efforts to provide relief to those who are not able to move up, for whatever reason, and are stuck at the bottom of the pyramid.
Chaos involves high degrees of uncertainty and randomness and unpredictability. It raises the question whether life is worth living. But it also encourages innovation and active attempts at combating chaos and evolving new ways of thought and action. The best ideas and efforts from religious and political leaders have come from efforts to create habitable order from chaos or to challenge or reform tyrannical order to make it more habitable.
In revolutionary situations the existing order is replaced by a new system of order. Even in the economic sphere, innovators who produce new business models and new ways of doing things are working outside the economic order while those within are making only marginal improvements.
There needs to be a degree of chaos in order and some degree of order is necessary in the chaos that exists. The ideal solution is to be able to negotiate between order and chaos—taking advantage of the certainty and predictability of being part of the order but also bringing to it some of the chaotic elements in terms of innovation and reform.
The immediate problem is: Within this general scheme of existence, how should civil servants cope? The essential job of a civil servant is to preserve, sustain and implement order. Discretion, innovation and individual action are limited by institutional and legal provisions that bind the civil servant to the system of order to which he/she belongs. However, the saving grace is that any sustainable order has to rest on consent of the people—the consent may be direct and positive through an electoral process or indirect through acquiescence, concession, submission and conformity.
Where the system permits legal and technical initiatives and actions which help those who are at the bottom of the pyramid, the civil servant has a degree of freedom of action which is in conformity with part of the system mandate. It is this small but important part of potential action that civil servants can exercise without destabilising the system and, in fact, acting to make the system more responsive and tolerable to those at the bottom of the pyramid. Such actions legitimise the system and try to universalise its benefits.
The role of the ‘Right’ of the political spectrum is dedicated to maintaining the system of order; the role of the ‘Left’ lies in acting towards amelioration of the less privileged. But this is a debate and contest between political parties and does not mandate the civil service to act on its own without political direction. To the extent the civil service can perform its functions in a fair manner, this is advisable and implementable.
At the same time, civil servants need to protect their integrity and ensure they are accountable for actions to their superiors and to the system as a whole. This is the problem civil servants are confronted with when taking discretionary action that has to be justified. The problem becomes worse when they are carrying out orders of the political masters that do not comply with procedures. If these actions result in loss to the public exchequer the matter becomes serious even if there is no private gain by the civil servant in exchange for irregular and illegal actions.
It is this area that civil servants are in danger of entering even if the motivation to initiate quick action by bypassing established procedures is to increase the efficiency of the system at their level. The risks with taking initiative are high and need to be mitigated by reasoned written orders approved by immediate seniors in the service. The road to civil service hell is paved with good intentions.
However, as the economy grows and strengthens and most households are able to access markets for their needs, the requirement for special government services, licenses, permits, entitlements, grants and subsidies will become less important. This will reduce the roles of the government and civil service. That will be the day!