Notes from fieldwork: Who is the bureaucrat accountable to?

In conducting fieldwork with communities living in poverty, I have often had to interact with bureaucrats in a variety of countries.

Although these interactions are contextual and culturally constituted, one feature that tends to resonate across the interactions is the impermeability of the bureaucrat.

For most community members, the bureaucrat is intimidating.

Usually selected through some kind of a grade-based/exam-based system, in a number of these countries, the bureaucrat is identified by his/her pedigree.

Strong academic performance. Strong performance on entrance exams.

While these qualities prepare the bureaucrat well in analytical thinking, they alone are not sufficient.

Without humility and compassion, the bureaucrat becomes the impermeable face of the State, disconnected from everyday people, their lived experiences, and their struggles with making a living.

Without the exposure to the reality of the everyday struggles of the people, the bureaucrat becomes a far removed instrument of the state structure, perfecting the rote-learned mechanisms of the bureaucracy. Too busy saving his/her job, the bureaucrat is mostly incompetent, too quick to discard grievances from communities, and too far removed from community life to understand the challenges community members, particularly the poor, face.

Thus, one of the striking features in the interaction of bureaucrats with the poor is often the dismissal of the lived experiences of the poor.

A well performed bureaucratic veneer is both impermeable and inaccessible to the poor.

In our culture-centered work then, one of the early lessons we learn in working together with communities at the margins is this: in a state-driven system, the bureaucrat is just the servant of the state. Here to serve. Paid by tax payers. The strengthening of state structures and public services can only be accomplished when the bureaucrat is held accountable.

Once this point is well ingrained in community life, community members know to hold the bureaucrat accountable to them, as a servant of the public. Their relationship with the bureaucrat thus changes, as one of expecting the bureaucrat to be responsive to their challenges, and to be driven by the fundamental mission of serving them.

The culture-centered approach inverts the traditional top-down logic of bureaucracy by making open spaces that are held accountable to the participation of everyday citizens.


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