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Lawful, but corrupt: Pork and limitations of bureaucracy

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When asked how we perceive legitimate authorities in the Philippines, the word “dirty” immediately comes to mind. We have no hesitation in using derogatory terms to label officials.  When it comes to talking about graft and corruption, however, there is an unquestionable hint of defeat as we try to condemn, but at the same time tolerate, these kinds of practices.

“It’s part of the system. We can’t do anything about it” – is the usual response when faced with the challenge of remedying our political culture.

With the recent eruption of the pork barrel scandal and the Napoles brand of lavishness that is becoming the issue’s main symbol, we are once again resorting to name-calling. We highlight the systemic failures of our government, yet, we do not make a real move to overturn existing structures. Calling for the abolition of the pork barrel may be a step, but it is merely palliative if we are to consider the far-reaching claws of elite power and bureaucratic domination in the country. Are we really helpless in the face of corruption?

The Philippine government, like all other formal organizations, is a type of bureaucracy. A bureaucracy comprises mechanisms that formalize and centralize authority and decision-making in society. Within the bureaucracy, there are protocols that guide the often complex interactions of people working within the system. There are formal rules and regulations that govern standards of what is right and just in public service. These mechanisms should regulate the various parts of the system and uphold integrity. Why then, is our political culture continually stained by scandals and inefficiencies such as graft and corruption?

The ongoing pork barrel circus is not merely a testament to the oversight of Janet Napoles and her conspirators; it is also an issue that calls us to rethink the limitations of this “iron cage of rationality,” as Max Weber puts it.

Formal bureaucracy is supposed to constitute the most efficient type of organization. In reality, it often fails to live up to this state because within this formal system, there are also informal elements such as human relationships, personal networks, and individual motivations. Using our government as an example, people working the system usually employ these elements to informally yet legitimately consolidate their positions. Take, for instance, the pork barrel conspirators as cases in point. Despite bureaucratic regulations that guard against corruption, the tolerance of unwarranted connections among remorseless politicians and conniving outsiders allows for malpractice and makes the bureaucracy irrational.

Further, Ralph Hummel argues that people working in bureaucracies are at risk of becoming mechanical individuals who are ultimately detached from the larger society. We can see that in how Janet Lim Napoles and her league of legislators negotiate private interests over public resources. We can also see that in the ways by which the government becomes increasingly corrupt regardless of the presence of a few benevolent politicians, an empowered civil society, and the impelling voice of the public.

The latter observations also serve as testament, not only to Hummel’s notion, but to how bureaucratic arrangements tend to replace an individual’s autonomous will with organizational identity. To put it simply, individuals working in bureaucracies are often eaten up by the system. As individuals do their tasks within the bureaucracy – tasks that are imposed by superiors who are detached from society’s needs – their sense of what is right and wrong is slowly skewed in favor of the system. And this is the reality we use to justify a culture of corruption.

The bureaucracy is a necessary paradox. On the one hand, we need its calculating efficiency to impose order and attain goals. On the other hand, it tends toward irrationality and is open to abuse. While bureaucratic organizations, such as the government, are essential in controlling society, it is often those people who run these organizations – the powerful and deeply-rooted politicians – that are the most difficult to control. Bureaucratic structures can, for instance (and ironically at that), slow down the flow of information and delay the identification and detention of those accountable in political scandals.

The pork barrel scam shows us only a fragment of how the limitations of bureaucracy allow bad practices to be institutionalized under our noses. In the midst of looking for who are involved in this political bonanza, we ask: How can a bureaucratic government maintain its efficiency and rationality for the common good? How can a bureaucracy be answerable to the public?

I honestly do not hold the answers right now. Unless we find a way to overhaul the system itself, or to cure the systemic failures and impunity that are seen to be the norm rather than the exception, then we will continue to live under the wings of a bureaucratic government that we can consider lawful, but corrupt.


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