Humanizing the bureaucracy

Mention the word “bureaucracy,” and people are likely to take it as a detested term for long delays, inefficiency, clerical ineptness, petty arrogance, and lack of empathy. This is all so ironic. For bureaucracy, in its original sense, referred to the most rational form of organization ever invented—a “regime of experts,” wrote Max Weber, its foremost theoretician.

In Weber’s bureaucracy, people are appointed to their positions because of merit—because of what they can do, rather than because of who they are. No matter how low or small her role in the bureaucracy may be, every officeholder has a distinct contribution to make to the life of an organization. She does not own her office, and so she cannot use it to favor relatives, friends, and acquaintances. A strict wall separates the sphere of the office from the realm of the family.

Bureaucracy is a way of managing the affairs of a complex society. But the very same reasons that make it work as a solution to complexity also tend to be the causes behind its classic dysfunctions. A bureaucracy works when its operations are, at every point, made predictable. This is achieved by formulating clear rules and criteria, and limiting the scope for personal discretion.

But, as it happens, the social environment in which rules are applied is always more complex. The rules do not always provide quick and precise guides for dealing with every actual case. A lowly employee may often find it safer and easier to insist on formal compliance with the rules, rather than go the extra mile to deliver substantive service. In this manner do bureaucrats forget their common sense and lose their basic humanity. They can cite all the rules but never the goals. They become timid and cold, unable to use their judgment to help people.

It is against this background that countless campaigns to humanize the bureaucracy have been launched. Still, a bureaucrat has to have enough self-confidence and an unerring sense of what is appropriate to every given situation in order to be able to deliver effective public service. Every decision entails taking risks of some sort, and ordinary employees may not always be prepared to go the extra mile to assist a stranger. That is why in societies like ours, it has become customary for people to seek the help of patrons even when they don’t really need one.

And yet, it is not uncommon to stumble upon examples of humane and professional public service that pleasantly astound those who have become cynical about dealing with government. I have a friend from Singapore, Peter Chong, a retiree who married a Filipina and has made our country his home. He talks effusively about the kindness of the average Filipino, and the relaxed atmosphere he finds in almost every community he visits. He also loves taking pictures of public facilities that bear signs of chronic neglect, even as he marvels at the endless patience of Filipinos who seem not to notice. Knowing how well-oiled the Singaporean public state machine is, I, of course, warn him about expecting to find the same level of public service in a country that is far bigger and less rigidly governed than his own.

Recently, he was confined for pneumonia at the Saint Louis Hospital in Baguio, where he and his wife Elvie live. Upon his discharge, Elvie filed for PhilHealth benefits on his behalf as a member’s spouse. But his application could not be processed because of a discrepancy between his name in the hospital records and his name as it appears in the member’s data record. He paid the entire hospital bill from his pocket so he could go home. Then he e-mailed me to say that he had been sick, and to ask if there was any hope of getting reimbursement from PhilHealth. I assured him that PhilHealth is better run nowadays and though it might take a while to process the claim, he would eventually get his reimbursement.

Last week, Peter texted me to say how very wrong I was about PhilHealth, and that he was e-mailing me a copy of a letter he had sent to his Singaporean friends back home. “Oh no,” I said to myself, as I prepared to read a rant against the dysfunctional labyrinths of the Philippine bureaucracy. What I found instead was a gushing tribute to PhilHealth. Here is that letter’s last paragraph: “Amazing—claim submitted, processed, and payment received in one morning. In a country where they dot all the ‘i’s and cross all the ‘t’s, the discrepancy of my name in the hospital records and PhilHealth records would have been a big problem to unravel. Yet the staff managed to get it done within an hour. Still, we hear degrading remarks about the Philippines being a Third World country. I would say that with my experience at PhilHealth, I have not come across a more caring, compassionate, and efficient establishment and staff. And I am not even a Filipino, just the spouse of one.  Mabuhay Pilipinas, Mabuhay PhilHealth!”

Peter is a likeable bloke with a hearing problem and a ready smile. It’s easy to warm up to him. Still, he was lucky to have encountered government employees who took the trouble to confer about his situation and, rather than raise a big issue about the problem posed by the difference between his Chinese name and the westernized name he used in the hospital, decided to process his claim.

Indeed, no one would have blamed the PhilHealth people if they had opted to be more “bureaucratic,” given the ongoing high-profile inquiries into the corruption attending disbursements of public funds. But by going beyond the letter of the rules to make a judgment that no computer was capable of doing, they spelled all the difference between a living bureaucracy and an ossified one.

* * *