Who wants to work for govt in the age of populism?

The recent election of Mr Donald Trump has created panic within the career bureaucracy in Washington, DC. A recent survey of federal workers reported in the Washington Post found that only 65 per cent would commit to serving under a Trump administration. They fear having to pursue objectionable goals and serving under incompetent leadership of political appointees. In a similar vein, we saw some senior European Union delegates from the United Kingdom resign after the Brexit vote.

Mr Trump's election is hardly an isolated event. Across the globe we see a surge of "strongman" populist leaders using aggressive, nationalist rhetoric to win elections while using loyalist forces and purging their opposition to stay in office (Duterte, Putin, Erdogan and Orban, to name a few). Such leaders may endanger the potential for creating quality of government, or destroy quality of government already achieved over a long period of time, for at least three reasons.

First of all, populists risk alienating career bureaucrats who often work tirelessly for modest salaries to deliver everyday services to the public. While populist leaders become popular exactly because they run on a platform of "bureaucrat bashing", they need the very bureaucracy to succeed in pleasing their electorate. Indeed, while career bureaucrats may sometimes act as custodians of the status quo who get in the way of change, they also provide the expertise, neutrality and competence governments need to function effectively and drive policy reform.

Second, if populist politicians fail to energise and win over bureaucrats, this creates a dangerous vicious circle of more disappointed citizens with ever more firebrand populism as a result. After all, if populist leaders circumvent or even blatantly trash the career bureaucracy they need to realise their plans, their plans will be stalled and sabotaged, to ultimately die a quiet death. In the end, government may cease to get anything done at all, with complete gridlock as a result.

Third and final, there may be a more serious issue here than (some) existing bureaucrats leaving. Governments across the globe are in dire need of upgrading and replacing their aged personnel cohorts. They struggle to attract the best and brightest of the millennial workforce they so desperately need to make the public service "21st-century proof". Dozens of studies show waning enthusiasm among talented, often societally engaged, graduates to pursue careers in government. Such graduates already feel that public- sector career opportunities are inferior to those offered by the private sector. In this context, the surge of bureaucrat-bashing populists may well deal the final blow to public sectors already suffering from severe budget cuts since the financial crisis. Evidence shows that career bureaucrats are driven by intrinsic motivations and the content of their work rather than monetary incentives, so why would they even contemplate a public-sector career to serve a bureaucrat-basher?

What do we need then? Without risking sounding overly naive, the world is in need of leaders who provide a realistic but also optimistic picture of what government can (and cannot) achieve and, above all, motivate and positively frame the public- sector workforce. Indeed, countries which have achieved sustained good governance and public service excellence in recent decades, such as Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands and New Zealand, have public agencies staffed by competent, impartial and well-paid bureaucrats.

Support for leaders such as American President-elect Donald Trump is hardly an isolated event. Across the globe, there is a surge of such populist leaders using aggressive, nationalist rhetoric to win elections.
Support for leaders such as American President-elect Donald Trump is hardly an isolated event. Across the globe, there is a surge of such populist leaders using aggressive, nationalist rhetoric to win elections. PHOTO: REUTERS

These bureaucrats serve the government of the day loyally and critically while providing checks and balances to leaders who pursue their objectives by questionable means. In turn, political leaders fund and support efforts by the senior bureaucracy to sustain public service excellence. Despite their often competing interests and agendas, both groups know they need each other to make government run smoothly - and ultimately, to survive. This traditional "public service bargain" is now under severe pressure, not only in the developing world, but also in the developed world.

Countries which have achieved sustained good governance and public service excellence in recent decades, such as Singapore, Switzerland, the Netherlands and New Zealand, have public agencies staffed by competent, impartial and well-paid bureaucrats.

By positioning the government as a cool, modern and inclusive place to work, political leaders can unleash unlimited energy and potential, and create a diverse workforce eager to take on the many policy challenges ahead of us. Ironically, United States President Barack Obama has made some waves here in recent years, for instance, by setting up "geek teams" of former Silicon Valley executives tasked with finding new ways for government to use technology to improve service delivery, often taking substantial pay cuts.

Finally, the more recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada may serve as an example to his strongman peers. Applications for public service positions from talented graduates in Canada - and from Canadians living abroad - have surged since he was elected. Talented bureaucrats from the US may start applying soon as well.

•Dr Zeger van der Wal is Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and author of the forthcoming book, The 21st Century Public Manager.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2016, with the headline 'Who wants to work for govt in the age of populism?'. Print Edition | Subscribe