Thursday, 29 July, 2021

Why Public Institutions Fail

Mukti Rijal

Public institutions constitute the vital ingredients of the state in a democratic polity. These institutions are conceptualised and created by the state with a view to enhancing effective governance, accountability, promoting development and ultimately attaining the wellbeing of the nation. The functioning of the public institutions determines the effectiveness and efficacy of the government to secure justice to the people. Public institutions include all the institutions created and aided by the government and governed by law of the land.
Public institutions include parliament, judiciary, civil bureaucracy, government aided universities, hospitals and other chartered and publicly funded entities. However, the general nature and character of the public institutions is such that they cannot grow, take shape and become functional overnight as and when they are created. They need time, resources, unencumbered mandate, autonomy and support so as to allow and enable them to be effectively institutionalised and functional.

Institutional properties
Only when they are properly institutionalised, effectiveness and robustness in the functioning of public entities is enhanced and stabilised. Every public institution, in fact, begins as a new-born organisation and over the years, it takes on the institutional properties and characteristics. The question is how this happens. Sometimes, these organisations are created from scratch. In such a situation, required expertise must be developed or accessed; internal capacity must be developed into structured and recurring practices. Then only stable organisation arises and gets metamorphosed into an effective institution.
The first challenge for any public organisation is to achieve a semblance of institutionalisation. There is a need to translate formal goals into effective working practices. The uniqueness of public institution, unlike private entities, is that they generally do not formulate the formal goals. These are usually imposed upon them by the government. Formal goals often tend to be multiple, complex, vague, and subject to constant interpretative shifts. Moreover, these goals do not come with a clear set of implementation instructions. It must invent or adopt a way of working that is both effective and legitimate. Many of these institutional goals are very difficult to accomplish because of their structural deficiencies, unrealistic targets and lack of autonomy, resources to allow them to adapt to the new situation and context
Needless to repeat, modern state secures legitimacy and carries out its governing and development function through a diverse range of public institutions, entities and mechanism. The societies are well governed and better organised to the extent that their public institutions can adequately manage and deliver services entrusted to them. If public institutions are weak, fragile and cannot function effectively, the structure and function of the state itself is bound to decline and fail to even perform its core minimum tasks. If public institutions cannot function effectively, social, political and economic development of the nation gets stagnated further. Such a situation leads to the impoverishment and jeopardy in the people's livelihood. This eventually causes into the gradual failure of the state itself.
In Nepal, public institutions are getting weaker and dysfunctional which has resulted in decline in the functioning of the government itself. Let us look into the public institutions created for imparting higher education in Nepal. Tribhuvan University (TU) has been the premier public institution established in Nepal for delivering higher education. But going by its current functional status, it can be said that it is working as an incoherent and ill-organised organisation without having assumed the shape of the functioning institution.
There is no denying the fact that public institutions created for imparting higher education form the major planks to lend intellectual rigour and foundation to the functioning of state entities. As the institution of higher education, TU is assumed to train and supply the human resources needed for the state. Deficit in governance and quality in such institutions has a telling impact on the overall effectiveness of the other core public institutions. It has been pointed out time and again that poor quality of the institutions like TU is engendered due to political meddling in their academic appointments and governing autonomy.
Going by the contemporary examples, we find that Nepal has almost a dozen universities whose governance has been seen as captured for narrow political rather than academic ends. Political consideration occupies the major driving force of university governance. University authority's political affiliation does matter more than their academic credential, standing or vision. Politicians and party functionaries still see universities as critical outposts for building political clients and networks. On the surface, Nepal's universities’ governance organs appear free to make decisions about academic and administrative appointments. But it is not true in the real sense of the term. Their internal operation is dictated to serve vested interests and ends.

Patronage networks
Oftentimes, university authorities seem to be more intolerant and less accommodative to the opinions and demands that challenge them calling for accountability and result orientation. University authorities share the positions and academic appointments within the institutions based on political affiliations. Favours are directly and indirectly extended to enhance and expand patronage networks by appointing the loyalists to lucrative administrative positions or promoting them without merit.
Most academics or faculty members prefer administrative to academic appointments because these are more lucrative. A senior layer of academics is a critical body for any higher level educational institution. This layer can stand up against management’s excesses and act as a vanguard for the institution’s academic mission. In TU, junior and younger academics occupy senior teaching, research and administrative posts because the seniors tend to abstain from engaging in the academic arena and prefer to run from pillar to post for seeking political appointment. In order to make the universities run as sound and robust institutional entity, university governing system should be strengthened and political stakeholders should allow the public university to operate in an autonomous manner.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.