Good public administration is complicated, but modern governments have an easier job because they have many successful models to emulate. Arab governments often fail due to their inability to enable effective interagency cooperation. Until the deep cultural barriers are addressed, international exemplars will remain beyond the reach of most Arab governments.
Copying an existing idea is a lot easier than developing a new one. Japan impressively demonstrated this during the 19th century Magi restoration, when it dispatched its experts worldwide to report on the best ways of doing things. It rapidly absorbed the lessons learned, propelling it to the status of leading global power.
This principle certainly applies to the case of public administration, and effective governments worldwide regularly study what their counterparts are doing elsewhere as they seek shortcuts to higher performance.
However, while mimicry is less arduous than being a pioneer, it remains incredibly challenging in many public administration situations. That is because effective governments’ best systems and projects tend to be intersectoral, meaning they do not fall under the purview of a single ministry.
Instead, they require high levels of interagency cooperation. The problems worthy of being solved tend to be the most complex and require coordination between economic, legal, health, educational, and other authorities under the government’s umbrella.
For example, many governments rightly covet Norway’s 100 percent renewable energy production, Finland’s world-leading innovation levels, or the sophistication of America’s military. However, these successes are built on strategies spanning many sectors. A solitary ministry from an Arab country looking to emulate such success will quickly discover that unless it gets the other relevant ministries on board, its self-improvement efforts will be entirely in vain.
In principle, interagency cooperation represents nothing more than an extra hurdle. A forward-thinking ministry in an Arab country can establish a coordinating committee to organize the work required to copy a successful project seen in another country. However, several barriers stemming from the culture of public administration in the Arab world frequently undermine the requisite interagency cooperation.
First, many senior politicians in the Arab world are incompetent and corrupt and owe their position to nepotism or cronyism. This makes them highly reluctant to work with their equals in other ministries because such cooperation will likely expose their incompetence and corruption to people who cannot be coerced into keeping their mouths shut.
Instead, these leeches prefer to pursue projects that can be achieved through the hierarchies under their control. Their orders must be followed without pushback, and nobody dares question their directives.
Second, even competent and clean ministers in the Arab world tend to prefer projects under their sole control because of the prevailing culture of appropriating credit for policy success. political stakeholders in the Arab world are indoctrinated into giving 100 percent of the credit for a successful project to one person – the leader.
This bizarre mindset makes them consider interagency cooperation a risky endeavor, as the considerable work they put in might result in someone else receiving all the accolades. Naturally, they could all learn to share the credit, but the culture of winner-takes-all is so deeply ingrained that it is frequently impossible.
The result of this dysfunction is familiar to Arab citizens across the Middle East: ministries work independently and counterproductively on the same project. Critical projects that require interagency cooperation can stall or never get off the ground.
Notably, when an Arab looks at a well-administered country like Costa Rica or South Korea and wonders: how hard can it be to copy? The answer is that it is almost impossible if your country’s ministers consider cooperation with other ministries as a threat to their gravy train rather than an opportunity to achieve something great.
The only way around this is to rethink our own country’s public administration culture profoundly. With wicked problems like pandemics and climate change seemingly increasing in incidence, now is an excellent time to initiate the requisite reforms.