In the last couple of years there has been a new phenomenon that is visible on social media more and more. No, I am not talking about the rise of wolf-warrior diplomacy and neither am I talking about foreign diplomats hanging out at local eateries with the locals talking about how much they absolutely love Pakistan.
I am talking about the rise of the ‘influencercrats’—young junior bureaucrats who are dedicated to gaining social media likes and retweets for merely doing their jobs. Though this trend might have started with good intentions i.e., informing the public about initiatives and the work being done in their localities, it has evolved into this obsession with being known and consistently praised on social media. The influencercrats argue that they are simply letting the public know that they are doing their jobs as best as they can, and they are doing a public service. After all, the people have every right to know more about governance. But as we all saw in that clip where that young bureaucrat simply walked away from being berated by a politician, the influencercrats are making a crucial mistake that their seniors have avoided. Even though they might have this idea that they are somehow revolutionising public service delivery by documenting it incessantly on social media, they are inadvertently laying down the groundwork that will eventually lead to the weakening of their institution as a whole. And that is something that should concern senior bureaucrats more than anything else.
To understand what I am going on about, it is important to understand the role of bureaucracy in a system. Bureaucracy as a whole is essentially an epistemic community i.e., it is an insular community of experts and their influence is derived from being just that. In simple terms, the reason bureaucracy is able to thrive under nearly all circumstances irrespective of who is in power is because outside of their community nearly no one knows exactly what they do, how they do it and what the internal structure is. For instance, most folks would be hard pressed to explain the exact duties of an Additional Commissioner or the Assistant Director of Revenue Collection in a district. Add to this the fact that insularity gives anonymity, that allows the bureaucracy to carry out at times difficult and unpopular policy interventions. In simple terms, anonymity is essentially the most important asset for bureaucracy. It shields them from political influence and public scorn. For instance, if a constituent does not get what they need from a government department, they don’t go on bashing the secretaries of that department; they are more likely to blame the politicians or the government as a whole.
And that is part of the deal in governance. The politicians take the public blame/praise for work done by bureaucracy. In return, the bureaucracy gets the space to do what it has to, and it is shielded from public disdain. That has been the system for decades and it is the same in nearly all countries. Democracies are built on this notion because it allows politicians to be held accountable by the public while the bureaucracy does its job of policy design and implementation without taking the hit for being the decision makers.
The problem with influencercrats is that they are wrecking this insularity in their quest for public fame and glory. Walking around doing your job but with three taxpayer cameras following you to take pictures while you clean up a mountain side (which really is not the job of a district commissioner to begin with) is not making bureaucracy better, it is instead pitching it in competition with politicians. And in that competition, the bureaucracy opens itself up to be politicised. Not only does the bureaucracy start to compete for praise, but it then should also be willing to take the blame from the public. And if it is going to be busy appeasing the public on social media instead of doing their actual jobs, they are exposing themselves to politicians coming down hard on them. It also disincentivises the politician from doing their job of legislation and constituency work because they no longer have to take the blame. Instead, the politicians can blame the bureaucracy and promise to gut it as an electioneering promise.
Fact is—likes and retweets are momentary, but the institutional independence and insularity are long term. ACRs do not track how many people retweeted you, they track your actual performance on the job and reviews by your supervisors. Trying to short circuit that command structure by appealing directly to the social media crowd may not be the most ideal way forward. Influencercrats might be hailed on social media as doing great work for merely doing their jobs but what they are inadvertently doing is weakening their institution by pitting it in a popularity contest with politicians. The very strength of bureaucracy is being put at stake just so a few folks doing their jobs can get the likes. This will have long-term negative impacts and that is something that requires a serious discussion.
So, while it is great that younger bureaucrats want to inform the public about what they are doing and be ever present on social media, they should also be cognisant of how it impacts the bureaucracy at large and its strength. Competing with politicians without facing public accountability and that too using taxpayer money is not the kind of reform the bureaucracy needs.