Theory Y and Egypt’s Bureaucracy

If employees are treated with respect, fairness and equity, they will become committed to the organization. In the real world, it turned out not to be that simple, especially in our Egyptian public service organizations.

As an undergraduate student of business administration, I remember how our management textbooks talked about McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X denoted the coercive style of management, where leaders perceived their subordinates to be lazy, needing constant close supervision. Theory Y, on the other hand, was a participatory leadership style, a belief in the value and ability of employees who simply needed encouragement and positive reinforcement. If employees are treated with respect, fairness and equity, they will become committed to the organization, and they will do what it takes to excel at work. In the real world, it turned out not to be that simple, especially in our Egyptian public service organizations.

What would it take for our overstaffed bureaucracy of approximately seven million employees to operate under Theory Y? Would Theory Y solve all our problems?

Several prerequisites come to mind that may be inter-linked. I believe that if the bundle of these changes were implemented, employees would start feeling differently about their work, and the quality of government services may improve.

Minimum Wage: Right after the January 25 revolution and its call for social justice, a stronger demand was raised for a revised minimum wage in government. A monthly starting salary of 1,200 Egyptian pounds would barely cover the basic food needs for a family of five. Yet the minimum wage has still not been fully implemented, and it is not applicable to the state-owned enterprise sector.

Fair Compensation: Average salaries are way below the market rate. Demand is still high for government jobs because of perceived security, tenure and social status. Because of the shorter work day, government employees can take on private sector jobs on the side. In Singapore, government compensation is compatible with the private sector and exceeds that found in the U.S. civil service. No surprise, the best and most qualified calibers are retained in government.

Fighting Corruption: Corruption is rampant in the Egyptian bureaucracy. According to the 2013 report by Transparency International, Egypt ranked 114th out of 177 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Transparency: Following the model of other developed nations in posting government job vacancies and even employees’ salaries online, increased transparency in recruitment and in compensation will help curtail corruption and nepotism.

No to Nepotism: Egyptian public service is witnessing the institutionalization of nepotism. Government officials have always managed to appoint relatives and friends, but since the 2011 revolution they are demanding this as a right.

Reducing Power Distance: According to Geert Hofstede, the Dutch social psychologist who compared work cultures around the world, Egypt is a country high in organizational power distance. Egyptians accept that managers higher up in the hierarchy should be treated differently, addressed formally and given more power. I remember visiting the Ministry of Planning during Hosni Mubarak’s era and being astounded to see junior employees making it a point to place a larger chair at the head of the table for the minister, and even smoking the corridors with incense so the minister would enjoy a sweet smell as he passed.

Rightsizing: Over and over again multiple ministers of state for administrative development and heads of the Central Agency for Organization and Administration have stated that we can do without half the existing number of employees in our public administration system. Yet, the government succumbs to populist pressures and keeps on appointing additional staff to government. In the year following the 2011 revolution, more than 300,000 employees on contractual appointments were given tenure. Employees do not have a real job, or space and desks, and become demotivated.

Decentralization: Egypt as an agricultural nation has always been exceedingly centralized. Attempts at implementing a greater degree of decentralization have been debated and piloted in limited areas and sectors, but never taken seriously. Accordingly, government employees do not have much discretion in performing their jobs and have to go back to their superiors, who in turn have to check with headquarters.

Adopting a Public Service Notion: A culture of public service is needed. The term khedma ammais not even commonly used in the Arabic language. A government employee considers himself a master not a servant of citizens.

We need government employees who are willing to work. It is not at all simple, but if we do not work on attaining some necessary prerequisites, we will be very far from a true implementation of Theory Y. Committed employees are what we need to move on.

Laila El Baradei is the acting dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.