• Christopher G. Moore

The Art of Planning in a Patronage System

Official planning originates from a different perspective inside a patronage system. That seems obvious but it needs to be made clear. One of the weaknesses of the patronage system is the planning has undisclosed agendas. No one on the outside knows the political physics inside that black hole.

There are two areas where this shows up—procurement and operational procedures. When you purchase services and goods for use in large system—for example, the military, police, educators, forest management—planners assess specifications, policy goals, performance, quality control, etc—all important to an overall evaluation as to what is being fed into the existing system won’t cause problems of integration. Say the spare parts aren’t reliable or durable, and when a machine breaks down the system closes until the repair is made. If that is a transportation system, then the shutdown affects other external systems—people, for example, can’t use transportation to go to work. Matters such as training, maintenance, spare parts, upgrades, and quality control require planning if the new service or goods will be effective for the purposes purchased.

A number of crucial public services such as airports, electricity generation, water management, highways, ports, and waste deposal require a high degree of coordination, technical skill and understanding and rely on independent experts. Planners recommend what services and goods are optimal to the overall system directly involved, and what possible consequences may arise to interconnected system. Also planners take into account the chokepoints where public and private spheres overlap. No man is an island, and no public system is one either. System planning requires a high degree of co-operation and sharing of expertise across public and private sectors, drawing upon information and knowledge about operational procedures. Most large systems are networked and fragile. It doesn’t take much of a sudden change to collapse a crucial, related part of an overall system. Cut the electricity supply to Bangkok for 48-hours and see what happens during that period. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Photo credit Bangkok Post.

Take for example, international airports where airlines, pilots, service and maintenance staff, immigration, customs, police, private vendors, and ground transportation require an understanding of vulnerabilities that result if one part of the system becomes overloaded. Recently, when four additional flights from Hong Kong, Singapore and China were approved for landing at Don Mueang Airport, brought the arrival of an additional 1200-passengers into the arrival hall already packed with passenger from the existing flights that had already landed. Those additional passengers overloaded the immigration desks and passengers reported a four-hour delay in getting their passport stamped. One explanation is the officials approving the additional inward flights didn’t communicate that information to immigration and customs, or if it was communicated, it wasn’t acted upon. Incidents such this one illustrates the role of contingency planning in complex operations. Contingency planning means putting in procedures to deal with the surprise, the unexpected event. If there was such a plan, it wasn’t evident.

My theory is a patronage system undermines the capacity for system planning and coordination. Procurement and maintenance under a patronage system are often compromised because of the tension of conflicting interest. The obvious conflict is that patronage works to find ways to ensure a level of benefits flows into the network of patrons who occupy the top positions in the organization. The part of the planning for procurement is spent working out what is the best deal for the patronage network and still will deliver a benefit for the publicly stated reason for the procurement.

You can tell a procurement system in a patronage system from the goods it procures—they are usually from an eye-popping number of different manufacturers, middlemen, and specifications. That’s the cost of patronage; the kind of diversity that has no supports outside of the patronage class. Such systems are difficult from an operational point of view in the same way that simultaneously playing Chess, Go, and Checkers on the same board would cause problems. As mechanical and operational breakdowns pile up, it may be too costly to do anything other than junk the machine or system and procure another one. The point is that in a patronage system at the operational level things can break down quickly and the lack of planning for that breakdown is magnified as it works itself through a complex system. Like a bowling ball rolled down a pool table to break the balls, everyone realizes this is a different kind of game.

As the problems accumulate, it becomes apparent that maintenance and planning issues are resolved on an emergency basis, and everyone in the line of fire scrambles to avoid blame and responsibility.

In Thailand, the history is for governments to plan for the immediate issue, find ways to secure an immediate play back, and they are less concerned about the knock on effect to the system as a whole. When a patronage system is scaled up from a less complicated agricultural based economy to a dynamic, high-tech driven information economy, the most glaring problem is the lack of forward system planning. That requires hard analytical skills that look for inefficiencies and seek to eliminate or minimize them. In a patronage system, it’s exactly that mindset which is a threat to how things actually work. It is conflict between two contradictory values—the traditional patronage system (guaranteed stability to agricultural communities) with an advance modern system that has broader based tools and is more flexible. The modern system is better adapted to respond to unstable, unpredictable events. In this clash of systems, authorities will find it difficult to choose which model to use as a planning roadmap. The default is the patronage system model. The problem is that model is incapable of reacting quickly enough to ‘surprise’ events that can cause system collapse.

Next time you are caught in a multi-hour airport queue at immigration, remember the system was designed to serve patrons and not you. Don’t take it personally. It only means that you lack the right connection inside this closed patronage system; otherwise, you wouldn’t find yourself standing in the queue with the tired masses. Patrons, in theory, look after their own circle but if you don’t have a patron, well, you are on your own to deal with the sound and fury of dysfunction swirling outside the circle.

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