Local governments are once again launching noisy campaigns to instill a sense of responsibility among their employees. Apparently the campaigns have caused some alarm among officials and boosted the performance of some government departments. But many wonder how long it will take for the effect to wear off and things to revert to normal.
In fact there have been many similar campaigns, dating as far back as the 1990s. Wenzhou had its "efficiency revolution"; Sichuan removed local officials who were not "gainfully employed". More recently, Shandong launched a "ma shang jiu ban" or "do it right now" initiative to stir up sleepy employees. But such campaigns are usually the brainchild of individual leaders and fade once they are re-assigned.
So it is unlikely that the latest round of campaigns will achieve sustained improvements. The usual effects are to exhaust officials physically and mentally and further undermine public trust in government.
A better approach would be to use democracy and rule of law to make officials accountable. Democracy would place officials under the supervision of the public, and the rule of law would limit government power and force officials to follow a very clear set of rules.
As an immediate step forward we should increase the transparency of government. People have the right to know what officials are doing, and there should be effective institutional channels for the public to participate in and supervise government. No doubt stricter management can improve the official behavior and efficiency, but public participation and supervision is more effective and long-lasting. The public are not mere recipients of government services but also stakeholders with a right to be involved in decision-making. Increasing openness will boost public knowledge of government operations and lay the foundation for effective participation and supervision. It may also help build consensus and mutual trust between the two sides. Public monitoring and evaluation of officials can be turned into a positive incentive to work and can restore a sense of honor to public service. And nurturing a sense of honor is the surest way to improve performance.
We also need to strengthen the rule of law and further decentralize government. Decentralization will introduce the checks and balances that can empower society, the market and lower bodies of government to manage matters that centralized government institutions cannot handle well. China's government has always functioned in a contradictory manner. On the one hand departments are overstaffed. One the other hand they fail to carry out their duties. A very important reason for this is that the government has too much power. One of the most important lessons of reform and opening up is that decentralization releases economic and social energy. Over more than 30 years' experience we have learned that restricting the power of government reduces the negative effect of the governments' dilatory style of work.
Instead of continually issuing new official pronouncements, governments should effectively implement the "Civil Servant Law." Neither official documents nor grand speeches by leaders will solve the current problems. They will only lead back into the vicious circle of "rule by men".
(This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Li Huiru.)
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