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Bureaucratic Reform: Revamp our Bureaucracy

By Vinod Rai     January 2, 2016

Vinod Rai, former CAG of India and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, in the National University of Singapore (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

ABOUT: India's babudom is being rated among the worst in Asia. Unless bureaucratic reforms make fundamental and structural changes by holding bureaucrats accountable, India will continue to struggle as political initiatives take painfully long to translate into actions. Vinod Rai, former CAG of India and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, in the National University of Singapore, explains why revamping Indian bureaucracy is essential to make India future-ready.

The Indian bureaucracy is much celebrated and, at the same time, much reviled. It has been called the 'steel frame' and is also called 'babudom'. Its performance draws reactions ranging from total despondency to cautious accolade. However, in the present times, across all sections of society, it has ceased to draw unqualified praise or recognition for its role. How has it travelled from the 'steel frame' days to being seen as a 'laid back and laggard' phenomenon today? There is great need to introspect on these issues as any sustainable economic development can only be premised on the edifice of a transparent, accountable and ethical governance structure, which is what the civil service is meant to provide.

We have had Administrative Reforms Commissions and any number of recommendations to bring in reforms. Successive governments have either been non-serious about accepting these recommendations or have just not been concerned about them. The more worrisome factor has been the cavalier fashion in which different governments have thrown to the winds implementation of the very same recommendations that they had accepted when political expediency so required. There have been a set of recommendations which have been advocated by the highest Court of the land - these have also been disregarded. Maybe a fixed tenure for key posts such as the Cabinet secretary and the Home secretary, maybe have a civil services board to do the postings - these aspects are more ignored in their implementation than their acceptance. We need to examine how this situation came about and what could be a roadmap for any seriousness that government may show to address the malaise. {quote}

Any attempt to re-engineer the bureaucracy would have to deal with two aspects. The first would have to address the systems or structures and the other would have to be the professional or attitudinal aspects of civil servants. No civil service structure can be static in its character. It has to be dynamic and has to change with the times. As models of governance or politico-economic environments change, it has to adapt and re-engineer itself. It is widely believed that the political executive does not allow that to happen and ensures that either the bureaucracy is sidelined or remains too rigid to handle rapidly changing political scenarios, thus emasculating it. It is, and has been, proven to be true. However, it is not that the constituents of the service have covered themselves with glory in their own approach, behaviour and professionalism displayed while on the job. Let us examine the factors which are beyond the reach of service officers on the one hand and require structural corrections by government, and how, on the other hand, the officers could themselves correct some of the behavioural aberrations that have crept in?

It is commonly believed that the single largest contributing factor to the decline in the dedication of the officers towards their oath of allegiance to the Constitution is the upper age limit for eligibility to take the Civil Services Examination. The service seeks to recruit young and capable minds and mould them, keeping in mind the noble objectives and targets of the service. A 30 or 32-year-old person, who has served in one or two jobs and has appeared for the examination at least three to four times, is married and probably has a child. Such a candidate is hardly amenable to be moulded. By that age he has already formed his impressions about various important issues in life and administration, and does not have an open mind to whatever is being taught to him in an academy or on the job.

I recall joining some probationers for breakfast at the academy where I had gone to deliver a guest lecture in 2009. The entire discussion among them was about how they had requested for a posting to their home towns so that their wives and children could adjust easily! Mind you this was the first posting of their careers and the interest was the family and not the job. While, we would empathise with those who, for a variety of factors, have to be accorded a relaxed age limit, it needs to be recognised that irrespective of the age at which you join, retirement will take place at 60 years. The government services are also guided by a career progression system which is premised on seniority. You may be the brightest, most dynamic and exceedingly successful officer, but can be considered for promotion only with the most laid back, non-serious and non-performing officer of your batch/ seniority. {quote} A person even joining the IAS at the age of 30 can, at best, aspire to retire only as an additional secretary, that too if he is lucky - he could even get stuck at the joint secretary level itself. As an entrant to the service would be privy to this career limitation at the time of joining, would he have any long-term career aspiration in the service itself? Hence, why have people join the service who from day one do not see themselves rising to the top echelons and, thus, have no motivation to perform. These are the elements who fall prey to distractions in the course of the service. We cannot really blame them as the structure has been so contrived. Successive committees set up by the government and the UPSC have pointed out this ab initio lacunae, and successive prime ministers have accepted the argument, but expressed helplessness to change the system due to its political unacceptability. It is really strange how we sacrifice the best of issues at the altar of political convenience. If so, why aspire to reform the system or bemoan its inadequacy? It is our own creation and probably by design, as no political executive in present times wants a strong and effective bureaucracy.

Any serious attempt at revamping the bureaucracy must start from this very fundamental feature. The civil services were designed to be of a generalist nature. To that extent, bureaucrats have been able to manage fairly professional assignments with a fair amount of competence. However, times are changing and administration is becoming complex. Management of the infrastructure sector, economic departments and even education, social or health related issues, needs a greater degree of expertise and knowledge than was hitherto required of bureaucrats. Time has come when, after doing initial district and revenue related administrative appointments, civil servants should be given the option to attain specialisation in their field of choice and aptitude. They are presently trained at all levels of their career. These trainings are largely general in nature. These need to be converted to creating cadres of, if not specialised, at least fairly well-oriented administrators in fields that they will be called upon to administer. If we recruit young and dedicated candidates of an age not exceeding 24 years - with the usual relaxation for a reserved candidate - and after the initial 10/15 years, train them in specialised sectors, we will be creating a body of administrators who will not be 'square pegs in round holes', as they move up the career path. Considering the large number of professionally educated candidates who get selected for the higher civil services, such a basic specialisation effort would be undertaken earlier in the career and with a greater degree of success.

Good governance is the need of the hour. The citizen, having come centre stage, demands a more responsive, transparent and accountable set-up which is premised on probity and integrity. We need to emulate some of the culture embedded in the civil services of Singapore, Scandinavian countries and the qualities that the British Civil services, from whom we derived our model, still espouse and maintain. It is not about compensation alone. Any person seeking enhanced levels of compensation has enough opportunities elsewhere. She need not join government. We need to seek to create a bureaucracy of persons who are spirited, inspired and willing to work closely with public agencies, rather than sit in ivory towers. The civil servant has to be a team player first before he seeks to be a team leader.

It is also necessary to create a fast-track career progression path for those with a demonstrated dynamic and outstanding display of public leadership and innovation in good governance. Treating the dynamic and lethargic officers at par gives no incentive for taking up challenges and delivering in difficult times and regions. While the average performer may continue to move up the seniority-cum-merit path, the outstanding performer must be fast-tracked for promotion and, hence, incentivised to perform better. A structure for such rewards can be designed. If the country can have a Prime Minister at the age of 40 years (and a very dynamic prime minister at that), global CEO at 47 years (Satya Nadella), why cant we get the best of vigour, vitality and drive out of a bureaucrat before he is 50? Why wait till he is 58 before he can head a department? {quote} In a parliamentary democracy, it is undeniable that the political executive is supreme. The electorate has given it the mandate to govern. This governance function is carried out by the civil service. The civil service has to operate and balance between the noble public pronouncements of the government in power and privately expressed intentions, which quite often are not in consonance with the publicly stated views. Why is it that the Central Bureau of Investigation is called the 'handmaiden' of the government in power. The highest court in the land called it the 'caged parrot'. Caged by whom? Obviously, by the government in power. Caged by the very people who loftily declare that the 'law will take its own course'. How often has the law been allowed to take its own course? It is these piquant situations that create a hiatus between the officers who are willing to stay on the straight and narrow path, as against those who are willing to acquiesce to the political pressure for very narrow career-related gains.

It is to contend with these situations that successive committees/ commissions set up reforming the bureaucracy had recommended the setting up of 'Civil Services Boards' which would ensure postings on merit and also fix the tenure of officers, thereby releasing them from the harassment of political pressures. The Supreme Court had also endorsed this viewpoint in a verdict delivered by them while deciding on a PIL. No such reform has taken place. If the bureaucracy is expected to deliver on the merits of any situation, it has to be allowed to take decisions in a free environment. The correctives are threefold: have the Civil Services Board do the appointments/postings, permit fixity of tenure, and have a quick penalty and reward system - all three to be dispensed by an independent board. This in itself will ensure officers abjure errant behaviour.

We need to recognise that the much maligned civil service when freed of political overtones delivers and delivers impeccably. Consider the conduct of elections. It does so under the direct control and supervision of the Election Commission. In this role, the very same bureaucracy has gained global acclaim. The same bureaucrat, whether in the independent and autonomous office of the Information Commission or the National Auditor, is still capable of delivering objectively. This is because she has fixed tenure, independence under the statute and a well-defined mandate. This makes it abundantly clear that we need to free the bureaucracy from inappropriate political control. Such a paradigm can emerge when bureaucrats decide that they will face the unfair political demands and be prepared for short-term harassment which is often in the form of frequent transfers. Such a determination will have to be made by the majority. This will ensure that attempts to transfer inconvenient officers comes to naught as the replacement would be equally balanced and impartial. The 'transfer the inconvenient' tendency can be squarely faced - it only requires determination of a larger number in the system. As a corollary of this phenomenon, it will have to be ensured that the agency which makes the final call on an officer's delinquency or otherwise is an independent agency such as the UPSC and not the elected executive. This can also be extended to the observance of tenure norms, disciplinary action and a system to oversight the process of 'empanelment/ suspension'. {quote} It has finally to be accepted that in any system, however good, the architecture can function only as well as the persons who operate it. The aspirants to the service need to introspect. They need to recognise that they have to be the agents of change and synergise government efforts with other participative agencies to deliver most effective and timely solutions. There is need for the civil service to change with the times, moving away from the mindset of a regulator to one of a facilitator. This can be done by training institutions, provided the persons selected are impressionable and young enough to be inculcated with the ideals of the higher civil services.

Revamping the bureaucracy is not a Herculean task. It merely requires a positive mindset of the government in power and a determination among the aspirants in the service to deliver as per the hallowed objectives of the service. It requires officers to remain committed to the job at hand and not be swayed by narrow sectarian, political or regional interests. The compensation structure today is not adverse in government. Being inadequately paid can hardly be ascribed to some of the ills that have crept in. Corruption or nepotism are a direct consequence of an individual not being able to see an exciting career for himself which permits him to rise to the highest echelons. Hence, I strongly believe that providing an attractive career progression opportunity itself would take care of this phenomenon. {quote} The bureaucracy is the continuous element in administrations. Governments may change and hence the framers of the Constitution had provided for an impartial and permanent bureaucracy. The country has to ensure that rapid growth and welfare measures are inclusive for all sections of society. This necessitates an impartial, dynamic and accountable civil service which can ensure that these objectives are actually achieved. The stakes in having such a service are very high - the government and the political executive must work towards ensuring a spirited and impartial civil service structure designed to cater to the needs of the nation.

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