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How to compress government

Restricting decision-making to four levels is a start. Now build on it

By deciding to limit decision-making to four or fewer levels, the government has tried to compress itself vertically. If this is strictly enforced through regular monitoring, preferably by third parties, it would help speed up decisions.

However, this should only be the beginning. This move should be followed up by compressing the government horizontally as well. This can be done not just by reducing the number of ministries and departments, but also by eliminating the often needless inter-ministerial consultations, a stratagem perfected over the years to delay decision-making and apportion the blame for wrong decisions among many partners. The need for such consultations has also arisen because certain ministries have expanded their turfs by putting in place rules and regulations that make prior consultation with them mandatory.

Steering recruitment rules, for example, through this maze of consultations and external approvals can take between two and five years. In many government organisations, key posts remain unfilled because recruitment rules act as an impediment, and amending them would take forever.

The expansion of government has taken place mainly to provide ministerial berths to influential politicians. Many ministries have been split just to find slots for the excessive number of officers who have been empanelled to hold secretary-level posts. Sports and youth affairs, for instance, used to be handled by a single ministry until a few years ago when it was split into two departments to accommodate two officers who were waiting to be posted. The department of land resources and the ministry of panchayati raj were carved out of the ministry of rural development solely due to similar exigencies.

While demarcating some levels is inevitable and may be necessary for the efficient functioning of a ministry or department, the uncontrolled multiplication of levels is mostly for the exclusive benefit of employees and officers, and for their promotions. Each secretary to the government of India now has a principal private secretary and a minimum of four other levels of private assistants and secretaries. Such a template is replicated everywhere. For a file to travel through the levels, it has to be scrutinised by each person in the hierarchy. The time taken in the process is nobody’s concern, nor is the cost of the inevitable delay.

It is common knowledge that a lot of time — in some cases nearly 50 per cent of a department’s time, perhaps more in state governments —  is spent managing personnel, transfers, postings, promotions, disciplinary proceedings and court cases.

Consequently, very little quality time is left to attend to matters of public interest. The government has done the right thing by laying down that all decisions must be taken within four levels and not more. But as long as the other levels exist, their occupants will waylay the matter at hand and put a spoke in the wheel, making it impossible to hasten decision-making. Therefore, the four levels in every ministry must be identified and the remaining levels must be merged into them.

There is also an urgent need to revisit the ministries and departments, merge some and abolish a few. Departments like financial services, panchayati raj, land resources, steel and public enterprises have no rationale to exist. For instance, much of what the department of financial services is doing can be accomplished by the RBI and the department of economic affairs.

Similarly, panchayati raj is primarily a state subject and the Union ministry of panchayati raj is not doing much except duplicating what the department of rural development is already doing, namely, distributing Central assistance under various schemes. The ministry of steel oversees the functioning of a slew of PSUs like Sail and NMDC, often interfering in their functioning rather than adding value. These PSUs are supposed to be professionally managed —  they have been conferred with the title of Maharatna.

Similarly, the department of public enterprises has no useful role to play except issuing numerous circulars and mediating MoUs between PSUs and their respective ministries — a task that the ministries can easily accomplish on their own. As if creating such a redundant department was not enough of a waste of public resources, there is a Board for Reconstruction of Public Sector Enterprises to advise on how to revive sick PSUs. The list is long.

The quality of governance also depends on the calibre of those who lead the establishment. The next reform must address the manner in which senior positions in all Central government establishments are filled up. The prevailing assumption that almost everyone who joins the civil services is axiomatically fit to rise to the top and hold any office must be eschewed. It is patently wrong. We have been suffering the consequences of this self-perpetuating myth all these years.

Reforms to achieve minimum government must recognise this and devise ways to jettison the dead wood before its weight sinks the rest of the administration, as it is doing at present. Maximum governance will follow.

The writer is former secretary, DoPT, and a former CIC
express@expressindia.com

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