C M Vasudev: Governance challenges for civil servants

The National Academy of Administration has a very healthy and unique practice of organising golden jubilee get togethers of civil service officers who had undergone training at the academy 50 years ago. This year, it was the turn of our batch. This was not only an opportunity to go down the memory lane on a nostalgic trip, but also an occasion to rub shoulders with new entrants to the civil services and try to pass on some of our experience. At one of the sessions at the retreat, I shared my perceptions about how the terrain for civil servants has changed over the years. Some of those thoughts are recounted here.

The vastly changed political environment was uppermost on the minds of the probationers. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) being at the cutting edge, where political and professional executives interact, has had to bear the brunt of the changes. Civil servants are increasingly facing a conflict between their accountability to the government of the day and their accountability to society at large. Since IAS officers enjoy special privileges and protection under the Constitution, citizens expect them to remain accountable to society at large. This is a very basic dilemma that civil servants face. Striking the right balance has become progressively difficult. Increasingly, officers have chosen the softer option of being merely accountable to the government of the day. Of course, there have been exceptions but the trend is unmistakable. Politicians of today have become more aggressive, there is more muscle and money power in politics, while the spirit of public service is less and ethical standards have deteriorated. Politicians have mastered the art of using the tool of transfers and postings or even contrived inquiries to subjugate the bureaucracy and further their interests. Unfortunately, many of our own tribe have contributed to this trend by compromising on their ethical standards in pursuit of short-term gains. Added to this is the trend of officers seeking to forge relationships with politicians of their caste. Despite this, a majority of IAS officers remain committed to public service. But the shrinking space for upright officers is certainly a cause for concern.

The second big change is the use of information technology (IT) as a tool for governance. In the early years of our service, computers in government offices were a rarity. Neither skills nor software nor hardware were available. Getting a computer was a tough administrative process. Many of us asked for computers because an air-conditioned work environment went with it. But things started to change very fast as the power of IT became better known. Some amongst us were fast learners and some remained rooted to tradition. For the new civil servants, IT as a powerful tool is more easily available for improving governance. But maximising societal benefits of IT and spreading e-governance in all facets of administration is still a work in progress. Many new entrants have come from Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management, engineering colleges and other such institutions. For them, it should be easier to foster e-governance. This aspect is important because one of the major criticisms of IAS officers is their failure to simplify rules and procedures. They have left too much in the hands of lower echelons of bureaucracy and have made a comfortable nest for themselves. One big regret many of our vintage have is of not having done enough to reduce the enormous power that clerks, assistants and inspectors wield in the system and who have become the real permanent civil service. We have given lip service to administrative reforms for fear of reducing the cosiness of our nest. The new breed of civil servants must strive to change this.

Another major change in the terrain is the increasing risk aversion in bureaucracy. There are many factors at play. Support from superiors, both bureaucratic and political, has enormously diminished. Civil servants find themselves increasingly on their own, with no room for even honest mistakes. They are looking for ways to shift or share responsibility. Someone has aptly observed that working in the government is like playing volleyball. Your first attempt is to lob the ball on to the other side of the net; if you can't do that, then you try to pass it to someone on your side. I also believe that knowledge deficit is another cause of risk aversion. If you are on top of your work, you are more confident of taking decisions as you are surer of likely outcomes. The task of governance has become much more complex and it is no longer possible for civil servants to remain the jack of all trades and master of none. Of course as generalists, IAS officers do develop skills for integrating specialised view points for the bigger picture. But without sufficient knowledge of sectors, policy making remains sub-optimal. Bridging knowledge deficit should be a continuous challenge for officers.

Increasing judicial activism has also contributed to risk aversion. This is a comparatively new phenomenon. Bureaucrats are happy to let the judiciary take the difficult and unpopular decisions, as it insulates them from any adverse fallout. The justification that since executive is not doing its assigned job therefore judiciary has to step in is both dangerous and flawed. What if the judiciary were remiss in doing its job. Can the executive or legislature do its job? Solutions to governance problem must be found within the Constitutional scheme of responsibilities of different organs.This is a much larger subject that requires a fuller discussion.

Another major change in the landscape is a very different and more tested economic policy environment. Officers of our era were born and brought up in a period of socialistic aspirations. We were told that centralised planning, coupled with a public sector-led growth model was the panacea for all our ills. Over the years, empirical evidence - both within our country and globally - has shown that this model was flawed, as it bred inefficiency in the system. Progressively, the private sector has been given a much larger space in our economy. Gone are the days of the public sector occupying commanding heights of our economy. The fastest-growing sectors are those where private sector is active. There is wide acceptance of a private sector-led growth model. But there are aberrations in this approach and a socialist mindset keeps surfacing in our political discourse. These aberrations need to be corrected. Bureaucratic self interest also, sometimes, tends to thwart the intent of reforms. India desperately needs to remove barriers to growth, which, after all, is the objective of all reforms. But the reform process has to contend with entrenched vested interests. Balancing the interests of winners and losers is a major challenge for governments. In India, only an incremental approach, rather than a big bang approach, to reforms has been successful. Though the major push for reforms has to come from political leadership, the silent bureaucracy can take significant incremental steps. Every civil servant should continuously look for ways to reduce inefficiencies in the system and find ways to reduce impediments to growth.

/> The writer is a retired IAS officer and former secretary at the Ministry of Finance

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