Raising the Prestige of Government Bureaucrats

I once upon a time argued that raising the prestige of government bureaucrats would be one way to help muddle our way through the Great Stagnation. Some people thought this was a little unclear and general as a suggestion (and it was), so here’s the Economist on how, specifically, to do it:

Singapore provides better schools and hospitals and safer streets than most Western countries—and all with a state that consumes only 19% of GDP….

One thing that stands out in Singapore is the quality of its civil service. Unlike the egalitarian Western public sector, Singapore follows an elitist model, paying those at the top $2m a year or more. It spots talented youngsters early, lures them with scholarships and keeps investing in them. People who don’t make the grade are pushed out quickly.

Sitting around a table with its 30-something mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of “Yes, Minister”….

High-fliers pop in and out of the Civil Service College for more training; the prime minister has written case studies for them. But it is not a closed shop. Talent from the private sector is recruited into both the civil service and politics. The current education minister used to be a surgeon.

Western civil services often have pretty good people at the top, but in Singapore meritocracy reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well but moved on quickly if their schools underperform. Tests are endemic.

Basically, pay more, expect more, and spend more time looking for talent.

The article makes the interesting argument that part of the reason this works is because the Singaporean government is incentivized to think long term; while year to year Parliament seats are secure, if things start looking bad the electorate can kick representatives out. I’m not as confident in this reasoning (couldn’t that model explain a lot of countries, like Italy and Venezuela, which do a lot worse?), and I think there’s an extremely open question as to the effects of culture (and, of course, the causes of culture). Explaining Singapore’s mix of lassiez-faire (limited business regulation, market based welfare and health care) and government top down control is a bit of a puzzle.

HT: (who else?) Tyler Cowen

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