In the recent Chilean presidential campaign, there were frequent proposals that sought to “eliminate the fat of the State” in order to achieve better results without “political operators” that hinder the professionalized public management that we need.
However, in addition to the candidates’ narrative, in Chile every penny invested achieves a greater return in terms of social well-being than in other Latin American countries –Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico, among others–, according to the World Bank Government Effectiveness Indicator.
This is far from a coincidence. Since the return to democracy in 1990, the country has carried out important reforms aimed at modernizing public management, with an emphasis on the correct use of resources and efficiency of expenditure.
All this was accompanied by the incorporation of technologies to support the work of public services.
Likewise, important efforts were made in the professionalization of civil servants, mainly through the creation of a civil service system, which imposed high standards for the selection of personnel in the administration of the State in the first hierarchical levels.
Chile has created a system of high public administration that guarantees levels of adequacy of the person responsible for an institution, an issue that over time has expanded even to directors of public schools, who must compete through these procedures.
Therefore, the debate on public administration should not focus on aspects that are already moderately resolved.
Instead, we must think about how to incorporate new logics, processes and structures into public management that allow us to address urgent issues.
From the migration and climate crisis, and issues related to the inclusion of excluded groups, to effective decentralization and the need to solidify certain values that allow a proper functioning of democracy.
Autonomy and flexibility of public administration
Public administration therefore needs to be rethought.
Not in terms of efficiency indicators, but in a broader sense, which allows autonomy from politicians contrary to democratic ideals and flexibility to respond quickly to changes in the environment.
Regarding autonomy, academics Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have been warning for some years that democracies in today’s world no longer fall due to coups or foreign invasions, but through leaders whose decisions end up wearing down institutions.
This is especially relevant in Latin America, where many political and economic institutions are created without ever having the intention of fulfilling the role they play on paper in practice, as experts Daniel Brinks, Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo warn in a recent book.
One of the pillars that the administration needs is to have sufficient autonomy to adequately fulfill its legal mandate and the values promoted by the public administration, safeguarding its work from political leaders who wish to instrumentalize it.
This is particularly worrying in the Chilean case, given the emergence of the far right and the possibility that it will occupy the presidential chair in the coming years.
Regarding flexibility, public administration needs to have an agile structure that can adequately deal with changes in the environment.
Some structuring principles of public administration, such as unrestricted adherence to rules and the standardization of administrative processes, have transformed it into an organization that finds it difficult to face global problems, such as migration and climate crises.
This is especially true in the case of Chile, where the decision-making process is centralized, leaving little room for action for regional administrations.
We have recently seen how the massive arrival of migrants to northern Chile has led to the rapid collapse of public services and conflict with localities in the region.
The climate crisis has done the same, pushing the state to the limit in the face of fires and water shortages, to name just a few examples.
Decentralized public services could adapt better to these dynamics if they had more powers and resources to act locally and with a territorial perspective, without depending on the decisions of the central government and the services of the country’s capital.
The state should be at the service of the people, but the state structures it has today, particularly outside the capital, do not have the tools to respond to extreme and urgent situations.
Flexibility and capacity can make the difference in properly dealing with public problems. This is the challenge we must accept in order to take on the new political cycle in Chile.
The current constitutional debate is a unique opportunity to rethink the link between the State and other areas of social and economic life, as well as its structure, processes and functioning.
Thus, a new Constitution must incorporate guiding principles that guarantee that the public administration has the necessary autonomy, flexibility and capacity to adequately solve public problems, regardless of the incumbent ruler.
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