Bureaucracy has had it too easy

The Hindu Business Line, April 14, 2016

By Pradeep S Mehta

Only now are they in the line of fire. Some lateral thinking is required to reform the administration

This seems to be a season of some good news as far as administrative reforms for economic growth is concerned. The commerce department at the nudge of the Prime Minister’s Office is considering setting up a large specialised team to negotiate international trade deals. Such a team would comprise specialists drawn from the Indian Trade Service, Indian Foreign Service and trade lawyers.

This line of thinking has been influenced by the fact that on such issues, we are always short on government expertise compared to other countries, while the number of international trade deals continues to rise.

On the home front too, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently set up a task force to recommend more efficient deployment of bureaucrats to priority schemes and do away with the practice of sinecures.

These and other steps such as asking secretaries to attend to a set of grievances on a weekly basis clearly signals the Prime Minister’s resolve to usher in good governance which would indisputably involve elements such as responsiveness, transparency, accountability and predictability, amongst others.

Combined efforts

These elements do not fructify in isolation. They require sustained and seamless coordination amongst sections of society, industry and the government, thus necessitating the need for efficient bureaucratic machinery comprising capable and responsive public servants.

The importance of such a bureaucracy assumes special significance in a country such as India as it is largely still characterised as an apathetic state despite the Prime Minister’s clarion call of “Maximum Governance and Minimum Government”.

In order to get an efficient, proactive and a responsive bureaucracy, a number of factors need to be considered. For instance, it will serve us well to understand administrative norms that bureaucrats in different States are socialised into. A recent study by Akshay Mangla, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, reinforces this point.

His research establishes that different bureaucratic cultures are a significant cause for significantly different primary education outcomes in the socially comparable hilly States of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Another point that this study reinforces is that bureaucracies do not operate in a political vacuum. Public institutions evolve in response to how political leadership conducts itself. This perhaps explains why certain bureaucrats perform better under an outcome and performance oriented political leadership compared to others. Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, and Modi are both examples of leaders who have turned around things at the State and Central level using largely the same administrative machinery.

They brought in some changes at the helm to get the subordinate staff to deliver outcomes. They have also inspired other political leaders to follow suit.

Sustainable solutions

There needs to be a more sustainable solution — a solution that ensures that adverse and deeply entrenched bureaucratic norms do not slow down the development process and most, if not all, bureaucrats deliver.

This is where a rather old but perhaps an ever more relevant call for lateral entry and exit would make sense. The debate for lateral entry into the civil services has been going on for a while. Many individuals, committees and commissions have espoused or seconded this idea, and instances of lateral entry have even taken place in the past, but a recent reform by the Jharkhand government lays out a template for other States.

Jharkhand, which has also carried out other reforms such as reduction in the number of government departments and improvement in ease of doing business, has allowed lateral entry in the appointment of advisers at the special secretary level.

It is indeed a positive step and one that acknowledges the lack of expertise amongst the generalist civil servants. This step makes even more sense in light of the fact that the so-called next generation economic reforms that India is looking to unleash actually vest at the State level.

Therefore, bureaucratic expertise will make a significant difference in the trajectory of India’s economic and inclusive growth. The Prime Minister’s Office has already asked the NITI Aayog to circulate this innovative practice of lateral entry from Jharkhand among fellow States so that the model could be replicated.

Hopefully, other States will follow soon. But just as we move ahead, it is important to note that it is equally crucial to have an institutionalised system of lateral exit and weeding out of non-performing bureaucrats.

Complementary function

An institutionalised system of lateral exit would complement the lateral entry system by providing exposure to serving bureaucrats in an organisational set-up outside of government, such as in the private sector or with civil society. As Indian States trudge along the path of competition with each other, such lateral exit for bureaucrats will make them more empathetic, proactive and responsive towards the needs of businesses, consumers and citizens. But, most of all, the institutionalisation of lateral entry and exit will obviate the need for the PMO always showing the path — which is not only unsustainable but also undesirable.

Another important element to revitalise the bureaucracy is to weed out non-performers.

In my own experience of over 30 years in public policy, I have often found senior officers whom I will not even hire as upper divisional clerks. They reach high levels through sheer sycophancy while their capacity to perform drops in proportion over time.

The recent sacking of 15 customs and central excise personnel on the grounds of non-performance shows that such practices can also be made routine as the enabling rules exist but are seldom used.

In short, the need is to bring in a ‘perform or perish’ culture in the bureaucracy as the stakes are really high and the country cannot wait.

The writer is the secretary-general of CUTS International

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