Friday, May 07, 1999

All bureaucrats should be created equal

In the second volume of his autobiography titled “The Invisible Writing”, the European intellectual Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) writes about the time during the early thirties when a primitive town, in the area of Pamir in the south of Central Asia, received the visit of a Russian patrol unit mounted on bicycles. The local folk ran away in total terror. During their lives they had seen many airplanes, but never a bicycle. The planes were seen to be simple machines and so they seemed quite normal. However, the fact that a person could glide along on two wheels without touching the ground could only be explained by the intervention of Satan himself.

Thirty years have gone by since I read about this incident which I believe illustrates in a curious way a less than harmonious development. Since then, I have been repeatedly reminded of this by living in a country such as ours, where the modern lives together with the antiquated without any complex whatsoever. Obviously, our public administration has been a fertile area in this sense.

Last year I had the opportunity to visit both the recently created Banco de Comercio Exterior (Bancoex) as well as the National Institute for Minors (INAM). Without going into which of the two entities is of more importance for the country, the differences between the two were so great that they seemed abominable to me.

I cannot faithfully express the magnitude of the surrealism, but it should be sufficient to say that Bancoex has modern offices, systems employing the latest technologies and an organization with staff selected with the assistance of an international advisory firm while the INAM, accessible only by means of a rickety elevator which takes of every half an hour towards the 42nd floor of one of the towers of Parque Central, has papered its walls with wall to wall Oslo type files labeled with things like “Invoices – Meat Purchases Month of February 1994”.

If a government determines that it must assume the direct responsibility of fulfilling two specific functions, whichever they may be, it should at least try to do both with the same enthusiasm and with the same service standards. We are constantly harping about the fact that we should fight to narrow the social gap in income distribution that creates first class and second class citizens. Likewise, it is equally as important to avoid creating first class bureaucrats and second class bureaucrats. Sometimes I believe we even have third class bureaucrats.

This does not mean I am promoting automatic and irrational equality as far as salaries of public officials is concerned. It has much more to do with the identification of the role and the social support given each public servant in order to stimulate his or her pride. He who thinks or feels that other believe his work is not important, or who is actually doing work that is indeed not important and should therefore be eliminated is as incapacitated emotionally as a baseball player who has lost his arms.

Likewise, as we head towards the Constituent Assembly which initiates the debate on the role of the State, it is of utmost importance to establish the norms and regulations that require the State to comply with its actual responsibilities before it is permitted to accept new ones. Should we not do this, we should not be surprised about the capacity of certain sectors to negotiate resources that allow them to incur in new initiatives that normally possess noteworthy or glamorous characteristics at the expense of other that, although no less important, require quite dedication, day after day, from 9 to 5.

I now wish to share with my readers a nightmare I have over and over again. During the last decades, the Venezuelan State has frittered away an immense amount of resources. Thank God that in spite of this, most of the spending occurred in public service sectors and that therefore it did actually leave something, however small, for posterity. Does this mean that if the State actually goes full tilt into privatizing public services (at the behest of ourselves) without having previously negotiated a corresponding reduction in their income, 100% of public spending will be wasted?

The town folk in Pamir did not bat an eyelash when airplanes roared overhead. They did not know that human beings were strapped inside at the controls. Had they known this, the panic would have been absolute. I sometimes think about the high expectations we have of the privatization processes in Venezuela. Are we by chance also ignorant of the fact that there are human beings in these private companies?

Evidently, doubts about one issue are not translated in certainty about another. In this sense, I cannot resist finalizing with a quote that I underlined almost thirty years ago in the before mentioned book by Koestler. “I automatically learned to classify all that is repugnant as an »inheritance from the past», and all that is attractive as the »seed of the future». With the aid of this automatic classification it was still possible for a European in 1932 to visit Russia and continue to be a communist.”

Daily Journal, Caracas, May 7, 1999