CAIRO: I recently heard a senior government official relate an anecdote. In Canada, he asked a Canadian, if you are driving late at night, and you see a red light, and there are no police around, what do you do?
The official s rhetorical question was intended to contrast the common adherence to rules in certain countries with the likely opposite behavior in Egypt, while summarizing his view of the problem with laws in the country.
His implied message is that Egyptians cannot follow rules, and that this is a social or cultural problem; rarely do individuals explicitly express their true opinions of such sensitive matters, but they are often an undertone of many conversations.
Another story, this one personal, will illustrate a second common cultural complaint. I had trouble with my DSL line this week, so two workers from my provider came to my house to rewire the phone lines. An hour later, as I was discussing the politics of telecommunications privatization with the workers, I noticed that much of the new wire they had installed was lying on the floor, sloppily attached to the wall at awkward places. When I asked them to fix it, they explained that it could easily be fixed but did nothing and departed.
Such accounts of shoddy work are familiar in the public and private sector alike. They are sometimes set against the perceived professionalism of, for example, the American workforce, which is sanctified by the so-called Protestant work ethic.
But rather than deconstruct certain social behavior down to its cultural or theological foundations, the performance of workers should be seen as a managerial issue for which administrative solutions can be found. Likewise, the failure of individuals in society to follow laws is a failure of enforcement on the part of the government, and the solution involves a change to the government s approach to enforcement more so than public awareness and education.
Enforcement, after all, is the best method of education, according to a veteran police officer of 25 years who recently visited Cairo. It not only discourages individuals from breaking the law, it promotes a general respect for society s rules and a caring attitude within the community.
The official may argue the effectiveness of enforcement in light of other workforce conditions within the government such as low wages. He may debate the merits of various approaches, but the government need not look in bewilderment at social behavior that is its own creation, and then turn accusingly to its citizens.
Nor should authorities wait passively for donor countries to tell them what to do. Instead of relying on endless grant programs that implement piecemeal changes, the government itself can initiate policies with a comprehensive, consistent strategy and specific objectives.
Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros-Ghali s overhaul of the tax system is an exemplary instance of deliberate and methodical public policy. The initiative began with unambiguous ends in mind: to reduce the official tax rate, to put an end to the arbitrary determination of tax returns and to discourage fraudulent reporting of financial information.
He involved businesses and tax professionals in the legislative process, but made few concessions on the ultimate objectives. He was uncompromising, for example, when some auditors said that they would refuse to sign the declaration of accuracy of tax returns that is mandated by the new tax rules.
In implementing the new tax regime, Boutros-Ghali is taking a risk and he himself admits that he has staked his political future on the project. But he has the advantage of being a technocrat with a detailed understanding of the policies he implements, and he is trusted by many in the government and the business community.
Some policymakers have a tendency to view the society they govern with perplexity and caution while frequently overstating the infeasibility or risk of change. They would better serve their fellow citizens if they focused instead on the elements that are within their control and implemented policies in a coherent and thorough manner. Writing laws and enforcing them are not impossible tasks. They may be controversial, but rarely do they cause a rebellion.
Meanwhile, legislators and the press tend to analyze and criticize active policymakers, letting be the quieter and more sedentary ones. As a result, some officials are induced to allow the status quo to continue lest they jeopardize their political standing. But quiescent policymakers probably do more harm than those who try and fail, and both need to be held to account.