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Enforcement: management’s soft underbelly

IT IS said that Bangladesh’s public sector management leaves much to be desired when it comes to enforcement. One wonders if the public sector is not good in enforcement, cannot do well in this activity, does not have what it takes to do a good job in enforcement, and if something is seriously wrong with the public sector in that it is unable and unwilling to enforce the country’s laws, regulations, rules, directives, ordinances, executive orders, statutes, standard operating procedures, court decisions, standing orders, charters, fiats, and institutional/organisational policies?
These questions are not easy to answer, partly because we as people do not seem to know enough about ourselves and our limitations and traits. Far too often, we remain oblivious to these concerns and move on with other pursuits of our collective life, and these concerns relating to enforcement remain, more or less, largely unaddressed except when these bubble up occasionally in some seminars and roundtables here and there. Should one look at the intrinsic nature of enforcement, enforcement in the final analysis is a brake on spontaneity, naturalness, subjectivity and preference. It is, and is often frequently perceived as, an imposition, it is a stricture; it is binding, restrictive, regulatory and controlling.
Let me illustrate deficiencies in enforcement, e.g. an open space earmarked or a part of lake for a park is illegally grabbed and occupied; a plant emits surface, air and water pollution in a rural or urban community; a building is erected which violates a big part of the building code; zoning gets mixed up with educational institutions; shopping centres, restaurants and kiosks being set up and becoming operational in a densely-populated residential district; vehicle operatives and pedestrians fail to comply with traffic signals, lane management and zebra crossing in busy roads and at crowded intersections; vehicular licensing and roadworthiness are subject to unlawful financial transactions and influence-peddling; goons and thugs continue to tease girls and women to tears and panic and gang-rape them when opportunity opens up; acid is thrown on the faces of girls and women by vengeful men; girls and women become specially targeted and are sent abroad under false pretence as part of human trafficking; job-seekers and workers are sent abroad by predatory manpower export companies and get swindled after paying hefty fees; a sweatshop indulges in the employment and abuse of child labour; a plant operates and disregards safety and labour standards; household and roadside refuse is not collected in keeping with a weekly schedule; streets, sidewalks and open spaces remain littered; pollution contributes toward environmental degradation and disease outbreak; a precarious building poses life threat; a residential district loses its privacy and charm by crowding, congestion, noise and other disamenities; traffic congestion and pedestrian disorder contribute to delay, time loss, high travel or ridership cost, energy loss, productivity loss, accidents and health hazards; street-level confusion adds to frequent mugging; unlawful conduct pervades the surface transport system and results in road hazards, risks and higher insurance costs; women’s rights and dignity get disrespected; deception spreads and trust declines; child abuse increases; occupational health and safety suffers; sanitation and health hazard looms large; a woodland is being depleted and a hill is being denuded illegally; and environment is being destroyed by covetous special interests. The costs of poor or zero enforcement are discernible. Among numerous costs, even if one cost is cited, the cost of environmental neglect and mismanagement is staggering, e.g. a denuded forest, a lost park, a dirty lake, a ravaged canal, or a stolen river.
Poor or zero enforcement may look accidental or tolerable, but it is not so. Poor enforcement is exacerbated by several reasons. First, culture goes a long way in explaining why in this country compliance has had such a poor record. Many statutes, regulations, rules, policies, etc are immured in documents, but are hardly observed or respected. We tend to take regulations rather casually, think that these are abstractions and ideals, are virtually worthless, are not executable, should be left alone, fail to implement those properly, are prone to rationalise their non-application, and remain quite relaxed in relation to their breach or selective application. Second, a corruption-interest nexus has made an unholy inroad into the country’s enforcement will and capability. The corrupt and special interest enclave peddles influence, mobilizes favours, buys decisions, silences dissent, advances interests, and consolidates control. In majority of such instances, the nexus profits by breach, violation, infringement, transgression, avoidance, evasion, bypassing, bending, and encroachment. The nexus thrives by collusion, conspiracy, plot, strategic alliance, cartelization, syndication, and secrecy. Such players’ foremost concern is to maintain and strengthen leverage over elite-driven decision-making and resource allocation, sustain mutually-beneficial relation with powerful elite enclaves, and retain extralegal abilities to protect group interests. The nexus is oxygenated by not only strategically-placed elites but also by some middle-level and lower-level personnel who are the corruption-ridden system’s defenders and beneficiaries.
Third, organisation policies and practices regarding enforcement and violation are not only weak and inconsistent but also outdated and unaccountable. Curiously enough, in some areas of our national life, policies are not even in existence or remain unapplied. When sectors or operations remain unprotected by policy vacuum or absence, poor and zero enforcement and muscle power quickly fill in the void like water following gravity. In the near future, policy weakness and sloppiness are expected to muddy water in the country.
Fourth, policy/decision enforcement, regulation enforcement and other kinds of enforcement are no cakewalk. It never was and never will be, because it is human to resist, repulse and resent enforcement. It is a legal and quasi-legal imposition on natural human behaviour. If not the masses, often elites and operatives with connections may, and do, get away with breaches. Resistance to enforcement is pervasive in many countries, including Bangladesh, but the real issue here is how capable, willing and resourceful organisations and personnel are in tackling or containing enforcement breaches and what they can do to discourage, deter and penalise such behaviour.
This is the crucial difference between the two sets of countries in the contemporary world, e.g. the enforcement-capable countries which have and respect knowledge, information, power, authority and skills and remain alert to social and physical entropy caused by enforcement weaknesses, and the enforcement-constrained countries which are or remain unable and unwilling — for one reason or the other — to uphold and observe the enforcement of law, regulations, rules and policies and continue to internally bleed in the form of paying price, disrupting services, upsetting balance and stability, running risks, facing hazards, fomenting conflict and tension, rising socioeconomic pathologies, fracture and divisiveness.
Some attribute poor enforcement to our cultural mellowness, arguing that we tend to be excessively tolerant toward enforcement lapses, that ours is a permissive and indulgent society, that we cannot deal squarely with high standards and are swayed by indiscipline, that we are by disposition volatile and mercurial, and that in our culture-area enforcement — which presupposes certain traits — is not compatible with our untidy and disorderly conduct. These observations, however, may be valid in some respects, but are neither inevitable nor permanent.
It is not true to say that the laws and regulations are not enforced in our country. Far from it. These are enforced, but only selectively and under enormous internal or external pressures. In fact, sometimes they are enforced expeditiously if such enforcement advances the elite interests. But in numerous instances, they are breached and the perpetrators are shielded from the enforcers by covert means and invisible patrons. Obviously, honest and competent enforcers operate under severe constraints, often at the risk of losing some career or life.
The other side is that enforcement tends to be carried out by reasons other than managerial and operational ones. Of course, enforcement violations are dealt with organisationally. But what is also notable is that the other reasons by which enforcement is done casts the entire exercise in a different light, e.g. the reasons may be political, partisan, personal, ideological, affective, financial, and so forth.
A dismal, but often unspoken, side is that the public sector may be rendered unable by powerful and self-seeking forces to do a good, timely, cost-effective and exemplary enforcement job. Such ineffectuality is costly, not the least of which is the public sector’s declining image, credibility and capability.
Enforcement lapse continues partly because there is little or no disincentive and no prompt remedy for misbehaviour, especially for those who are strategically placed and connected; repeated breaches and zero sanction have emboldened the wrongdoers; the connected individuals/groups shorten and even circumvent the management or enforcement process; looking for the right place for protection ; saving considerable waiting and processing time and paying much less in certain cases relative to other customers; the beneficiaries nearly always get shortcuts; they move and do things quietly, do not make any wave and bargain and negotiate, build alliances of convenience and strengthen the structure of interests; they are amoral in that they tend to disregard the due process regardless of propriety and consequences; they too have their share of fractiousness and factionalism, but they close rank quickly once they feel threatened; and they continue to operate in the cycle because they know at the end they have their strategically-placed high-level protectors who will stand by them. In closing, the ability, willingness and readiness to enforce what is enforceable and to use enforcement as a tool of growth, development and empowerment is one of the key and seminal differences between those countries which have arrived and those which are muddling through.
Dr Jamal Khan was professor of
public sector management at the
University of the West Indies.

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