The administration’s missing cogs

Worrisome vacancies in senior positions

Try driving an aged Mercedes 280 of W123 vintage all the way from Tyre to Tripoli with a faulty gearbox or without a fan belt. Possible? It might be. Temporary fixes such as a pair of tights have been famously used to keep many old engines running when the fan belt has been destroyed. A very skilled driver might be able to upshift from first to fourth gear when the second and third gears can’t be accessed. But your transmission suffers, and it sure makes for risky driving – if you get very far at all. For your vehicle to run smoothly, safely and at its optimal efficiency, its wheels and cogs all have to be in place and well lubed. To drive a broken car is dangerous. Everyone knows this.

Now imagine an organization where important decision making positions, like vice presidents or department heads, are not occupied. The organization might still run, but the transmission of decisions from the top will be slower than it should be, and many intermediate level decisions will not be taken. In the bottom up direction, decision requests will be passed on to the senior-most decider, such as the president or chief executive, and create an overload of work for top management. Erroneous decisions will accumulate and mistakes will be harder to spot if important positions are not filled.

This is not a theoretical vision, take a look at senior administrative positions in Lebanese government entities. According to a list compiled by Lebanese research company Information International and provided to Executive after the latest updates in January, there are 27 administrative “grade-1” posts in Lebanon’s public sector entities vacant as of the beginning of February 2017, all of which are reserved for members of specific religious communities. What is more, at least five of these positions have been vacant for more than a decade.

Some additional positions that were recently introduced, or are not specified in terms of communal identity of the office holder, have also not been filled. When accounting for all these vacancies at public sector entities in Lebanon, and moreover adding in senior positions that would need filling at state-owned enterprises, the void in qualified decision makers is huge. This arguably causes a very large sinkhole in public entities that could undermine the government’s integrity even though a president and cabinet have been put into place.

A Long road to reform

Grade-1 positions are the top tier of the five-tiered civil service network in Lebanon. They comprise positions such as a general director in a public entity and judges in the judiciary. According to sources that include the Office of the Minister for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and private researchers, the structure and competence building in Lebanon’s civil services has been marred by problems that were diagnosed as far back as 2001. OMSAR noted in a paper back then for the Strategy and Reform of Lebanon’s Public Administration that the Lebanese civil service “recruitment and testing system is outdated and cannot reliably help in detecting necessary skills and abilities in various jobs, especially in the absence of a job description and classification system”.

Even earlier than that, a study on Public Services Accountability was undertaken at the American University of Beirut in the 1990s on the back of several academic papers by local and international researchers and high-ranking civil servants in Lebanon. This study said that the Civil Service Council (also known as Civil Services Board or CSB) – an institution established in 1959 with extensive powers over practically all aspects of personnel administration in every ministry and autonomous agency, and a mandate to protect and modernize the civil services – was hampered before and directly after the Lebanese conflict through an erosion of powers. Drafted in 1996, the study said: “Despite repeated statements by the government about the need to re-activate and strengthen central control agencies in order to enable them to play an active role in rehabilitating and reforming the public administration, we have been witnessing during the past three years a disturbing trend to circumvent and weaken these control agencies, especially the Civil Service Council.”

Understaffing of higher ranks in the civil services hierarchy has also been entrenched for many years and seems to have only increased over time. In a 2004 public administration country profile for the United Nations, the authors quoted OMSAR’s 2001 paper saying that 10,000 of 22,000 positions were vacant at that time. Citing a CSB report from 2010, a private researcher said in 2013 that the number of vacancies in all categories exceeded 15,300 out of some 22,000 full-time civil service employees.

The problem [is] in qualification. Having qualified people take administrive positions will reduce the harm of wasta

The CSB seems not to have published new figures since 2010 (at least none were to be found on its website) and OMSAR likewise has not uploaded an annual report in the last few years. The last annual report on its website, containing scores of plans and project descriptions related to anything from efforts to streamline administrative procedures to completed projects in tourism and municipal solid waste, only covers the years 2010-2012.

It is an established fact in the story of Lebanese administrative reform efforts that initiatives to move appointments of grade-1 civil servants toward a purely merit-based selection process fizzled out within a few years after they were initiated in 2005. In the last five or six years, not much seems to have be done in taking administrative reform forward, and the public debate over the problems of the civil service by all appearances has slowed considerably as threats to Lebanese security and regional problems came to the fore.

The present administrative malaise

In this sense, it is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is visible in the list researched by Information International and categorized by the religious affiliations for each position. The list indicates that the 27 vacancies affect positions that are associated with “ownership” by Sunnis, Shia, Druze and various Christian communities in the Lebanese game of politics. This practice is entrenched and reflective of the fact that all across the country’s communal spectrum, groups are vying for shares of the national power pie. According to the advisor to one of Lebanon’s top political figures who had agreed to speak with Executive on condition of anonymity, it was a stipulation of the Taif Accord that the president of the republic should form a committee with the task of overcoming sectarianism in the allocation of administrative posts.

This did not happen, however, and posts are still handed out along sectarian lines to maintain the current confessional balance, according to the advisor. In his view, this pattern is not a problem in itself. Allocation of administrative jobs to political associates is an accepted practice in other countries, he argues, pointing at the United States as an example. “The problem [is] in qualification. Having qualified people take administrative positions will reduce the harm of wasta [nepotism],” he added.

It is arguable if the persisting practice of aligning grade-1 level positions in the Lebanese civil service with a specific religious identity can be anything but detrimental for discovering the most qualified candidates, restricting as it does the candidate pool by a non merit-related selection factor. It would certainly appear as a factor that makes seeking a position in the Lebanese public sector less enticing for the most qualified candidates, on top of the – fairly universal – fact that top jobs in the private sector come with better governance environments and much better remuneration packages, at least for ethically minded candidates. The ones that do apply perhaps do so out of a sense of patriotism, not because they are seeking to convert political power into economic benefit.

Culturally, the practice of aligning office and religious identity might have its merits for keeping the peace in a religiously defined society, even if it flies in the face of the prevalent ideology in western countries that – often enough wrongly – define themselves as liberal democracies, but are in reality driven by special-interest groups and their narrow ideological and political agendas. Political democracy is not the universal pursuit of all stakeholders after the greater good or the nation’s benefit, but the more or less unfair competition between any number of groups seeking after their respective partisan interests.

More than with systemic political debates, however, Lebanon’s political class seems preoccupied with power issues. In discussing those, it appears to be somewhat under-concerned with the economic and social impacts associated with the different jobs that lie vacant or are managed – for example by incumbent position holders beyond expiry of their term – without a clear mandate that meets all legal requirements.

Barriers to economic growth

Arguably not all the vacant positions are equally critical and urgent in their direct or indirect importance toward the Lebanese economy. Some are also occupied by more or less qualified office holders who stayed on beyond their term, so they are not vacant in the strictest sense of the term. However, rotations of office, term limits and durations of tenure are tools designed to help in supervising the efficiency of a position and guaranteeing that a public office does not deteriorate into a personal fiefdom or license for exploitation for private gain. The high number of vacancies, even if some positions are vacant pro forma and not in reality, is alarming from the perspective of governance.

When one further correlates some vacant posts with their impact on the economy, combined with the recent track record of the concerned institutions, the importance of presently vacant grade-1 posts is simply staggering from an economic perspective. This can be said because of the nature of the positions, even if the economic loss for Lebanon from having such posts empty is impossible to assess and so is the cost-benefit ratio that would come with each position.

The high number of vacancies, even if some positions are vacant pro forma and not in reality, is alarming

Examples that jump out at first glance are the role of urban planning for Lebanese urban productivity and the importance of the Beirut Stock Exchange in the national economic context. The position of director general for Urban Planning has been vacant since 2005 and the position of head of the Beirut Stock Exchange Committee vacant since February 2009.

The largest hole in a single institution that has to be filled is at the Council for Development and Reconstruction. Fourfold gaps in the CDR’s senior leadership have existed theoretically since 2009 and 2011 – for the Greek Orthodox secretary general, the Shiite vice president, the Maronite vice president and the Sunni president of CDR, although according to the list the Shia vice president and the Sunni president of CDR both continue to “assume their functions” beyond expiry of the council’s term back in 2009.

Other institutions of economic importance where vacancies wait for qualified office holders are the Investment and Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) and the Social and Economic Council where director general tenures expired in 2009 – even as IDAL’s general director continues to hold his position – and in 2011. At the Higher Council for Customs, two seats need to be filled and vacancies appear also at the Office of the President of the Republic and at the Office of the Prime Minister (for the entire list, see page 34).

In the judgment of Information International, the Lebanese public is not sufficiently aware of the number of vacancies and the importance of filling these positions for upgrading the functionality of important administrative entities and public bodies. As the saga of insufficiency, political sectarianism and the perpetual lingering of corruption goes back further than many Lebanese can remember in their own lifetimes, solving the issue of civil service appointment methodologies, upgrading civil service efficiency and filling the many vacancies could be as important for the systemic revitalization of Lebanon as addressing the more obvious problems in infrastructure and economy.

In an interview with Executive, the new Economy and Trade Minister, Raed Khoury, says that the problem of modernizing the civil service and finding a solution to the non-merit-based political appointment process is on the new government’s agenda. Acknowledging that the problem is huge, as “key positions have been vacant for a long time and civil service cannot function,” Khoury says there is a clear will among political parties for coming up with a solution for filling these vacancies, as “every party is now rethinking their positions and we will put them to a round table and try to come up with a conclusion.”

In past attempts of the 1990s and 2000s to reform the civil service, resistance against innovation was apparently too strong and could not be overcome. Given the gravity and duration of the civil service problem, 2017 would seem a good time to try again – but perhaps with a multipronged approach that seeks in the longer term to engrave Lebanese society with a stronger awareness of good governance. While in the short term, vacant positions need to be filled, and better selection methodologies and supervisory mechanisms installed, in the public administration.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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