Beware conservative bureaucratic elites

by Lorenzo Piccoli

Capable bureaucrats guarantee the quality of our institutions and the general idea is that a capable bureaucrats come out from a tough selection procedure. This is generally true. But the idea of toughness is a questionable one and must be handled with caution. The selection procedure to become a public servant in Ming China, for instance, was ridiculously hard; and yet some historians agree that the kind of bureaucratic apparatus coming out from the selection procedure represented a tremendous obstacle to the modernization of the Empire. This is in spite of, or maybe precisely because of the fact that candidates had to sit for three days in tiny little rooms with one table and one chair and they could not even go to the toilet (some servants would come to bring away the faeces). Neill Ferguson suggests that yes, “No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination” but at the same time “with its strong emphasis on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 characters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution”. Put it simply, this was a selection procedure meant create a conservative elite, reluctant to embrace change and with a rigid mind frame. A very similar historical case can be made for Soviet Russia, whose bureaucratic class was encouraged to follow strict procedural rules and to adopt an awkward jargon aimed at rewarding continuity and benchmarking rather than innovation. Some of us might want to take these historical precedents in very serious consideration when thinking about the increasingly rigid and self-conservative selection procedure put in place by the EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office in charge of choosing the public servants working in the Commission.