The bureaucracy has devised its own way of decision-making in uncertainty

The fuss over the chief secretary of West Bengal has once again focused attention on the bureaucracy which has become a major obstacle in the way of India achieving its goals.   It has always been slow and often erratic. Now issues of personal loyalty to political bosses have also begun to deface it.  A recent paper published by IDFC Institute tells us why. It’s available on the IDFC Institute website.  Although the paper talks about the bureaucracy as a whole, for the sake of specificity I am going to refer only to the IAS because it is the first am.....
The fuss over the chief secretary of West Bengal has once again focused attention on the bureaucracy which has become a major obstacle in the way of India achieving its goals.  

It has always been slow and often erratic. Now issues of personal loyalty to political bosses have also begun to deface it. 

A recent paper published by IDFC Institute tells us why. It’s available on the IDFC Institute website. 

Although the paper talks about the bureaucracy as a whole, for the sake of specificity I am going to refer only to the IAS because it is the first amongst equals. 

For the last few months, ever since the prime minister pulled their chains, the sweetie-pies in the IAS are going around saying aggrievedly “Oh, look, although we ‘do’ so much, no one loves us anymore.”

Well yes, they do ‘do’ a lot. But gone are the days when most of what they did was good, and only a small portion bad. Today it’s the other way round. 

Most officers do nothing these days but get in the way. Some even do actual harm.  

The ones who do good are few and far between. Naturally, they feel ill done by. 

The paper should have raised  an important issue: the distinction between the individuals who comprise it and the institution. 

The IAS as an institution used to be a great asset to the country. Sadly it is no longer so. 

Institutions, not individuals 

That is why it is foolish to draw the conclusion, which many serving and retired officers do, that just because a few officers are outstanding, the whole institution is also outstanding.

The IDFC paper touches on many core issues which have reduced the IAS, as an institution, to a shadow of its former self. 

This paper must be made compulsory reading for all serving officers, around 4,500 of them. 

For want of space I will merely quote from the abstract:

“The Indian bureaucracy suffers from indecision and risk aversion, resulting in an inordinate focus on routine tasks, coordination failure, process overload, poor perception, motivational issues and a deterioration in the quality of service delivery… bureaucratic indecision, in a large part, is a form of rational self-preservation exercised by bureaucrats from the various legal and extra-legal risks to their person, careers and reputation. These risks originate from problems of organisational design, institutional norms and other political factors.”

This is an accurate summing up of the situation. But unfortunately it also gives the bureaucrats a free pass. 

The paper would have been stronger if it had recognised that the problems that it identifies are all covered under a single rubric, decision-making under uncertainty. That’s what bureaucrats are paid for. 

Decision making under uncertainty

Economists and psychologists have analysed the problem threadbare. The overall thrust is straightforward: minimise the risk that uncertainty inevitably entails. The literature on this vast. 

But over the last four decades the Indian bureaucracy has developed it’s own answer to the problem of decision-making under Indian uncertainty. 

It applies rules by using discretion, that is, the old saying, “show me the man and I will show you the rule.” 

Another aspect that the IDFC Institute paper doesn’t discuss is corruption as a means of risk mitigation. 

Corruption generally means accepting a bribe for taking the wrong decision. But the Indian bureaucracy has gone one better. 

It accepts bribes for doing the right thing, so that the sort of uncertainty that the paper talks about is eliminated. 

This way it can have its cake (power) and eat it too (money). 



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