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No comfort zone

Government must guard against bureaucracy settling back into paralysis.

Too much is being made of the government decision to change the personal staff of former ministers. Too much is being made of the government decision to change the personal staff of former ministers.

By: K.M. Chandrasekhar

There has undoubtedly been a flurry of activity on the administrative front in the last few weeks at the Centre. A certain sense of orderliness and purpose has been instilled in the administrative structure. There is a feeling of accountability and some degree of uncertainty regarding the manner in which the new political masters will respond. Some uncertainty is good for the administration. An entirely predictable top executive can create complacency in the more pedestrian, less motivated civil servant. From what I read and hear, timelines have become more important and some objectives have become clearer. These are early days yet and once a new equilibrium is found, things could settle back into a state of comfortable somnolence. This is what the government must guard against.

It is significant that this change in outlook and mindset has been achieved without massive changes in personnel at senior levels. Very often, and more particularly in the states, a change in government inevitably leads to a chain of transfers followed by more transfers and yet more transfers. This time round, at the Centre, senior officials have remained in place. Even the tenure of the senior most civil servant, the cabinet secretary, was extended by six months. In 2004, the tenure of the then cabinet secretary was actually cut short by three months. This gives civil servants a feeling that the political executive is fair, that there is no trace of vindictiveness, that the emphasis is on work and performance rather than what position they held in a government run by a different political formation. At the same time, too much comfort is not good and, somewhere down the line, in the next few months, there must be ruthless pruning of non-performers.

The budget, too, gives a comforting feeling of stability and continuity, but at the same time, points to the winds of change. Obviously, there is no intention to rock the boat or indulge in histrionics of any kind.

Too much is being made of the government decision to change the personal staff of former ministers. I have told several curious media persons that this decision is minor, with no impact whatsoever on the quality of administration. Even in the past, it was recognised that long tenures on the personal staff of ministers are not desirable. Hence, a five-year cap was imposed and rigidly enforced, even though a minister or two successfully circumvented this decision. One minister, for example, could not get the officer of his choice as private secretary, but smuggled him in as economic advisor. Another circumvented the rule that private secretaries cannot be above the level of deputy secretary by bringing in his favoured officer as joint secretary in the ministry and then using him in his personal office. If the present government does not feel comfortable about retaining the personal staff of former ministers in the offices of their ministers, then we should just respect the decision. This issue is not worth a media story, much less a controversy.

The government has to move on to the bigger challenges before it. And indeed there are big tasks that await attention. The most important of them, in my view, is to reduce the administrative overload on several ministers. Some of them are snowed under a mountain of files, day after day. While their initial “new broom” enthusiasm will carry them forward in the first few weeks, the burden will soon prove unbearable. Either new ministers should be inducted into the cabinet or the workload on ministers should be reduced by putting in place an effective system of decentralisation and delegation.

The institutional structure that the government wishes to create remains unclear. There is still no clarity on what will happen to the Planning Commission and its role vis-à-vis the ministry of finance. This creates confusion at the field level. The states still do not know what awaits their annual plans for 2014-15, whether there will be plan discussions and whether Central schemes as well as the allocation of resources between the Centre and states will undergo fundamental change. The committee headed by B.K. Chaturvedi, former member of the Planning Commission, had suggested restructuring Centrally sponsored schemes, reducing their number and giving more flexibility to states.

Indeed, the impression was that the new government would do away with many schemes and decentralise to states, recognising the limitations of one single pattern being imposed uniformly across a country characterised by such diversity. However, the budget for 2014-15 has introduced some more Centrally sponsored schemes, leading to greater uncertainty at the grassroot level. Hopefully, the new schemes would be designed on the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana model, which fully engages state governments in formulation and implementation. The Planning Commission is not the only institution that needs clarity regarding its future. There are many other positions, like chief economic advisor, members of the National Disaster Management Authority and sundry commissions, which remain untenanted.

Another assurance yet to be fulfilled is that there will be mechanisms for close interaction with state governments. So far as the people are concerned, the first point of interaction with governance is the state government. Just like the project monitoring group in the cabinet secretariat, meant to facilitate projects of Rs 100 crore and more, there has to be a mechanism to coordinate and quickly settle the legitimate requests of state governments. State governments must not be running around different ministries seeking approvals; there must be a “single window” approach for them. I have noticed inordinate delays in decision-making on state issues over the past few years. There also has to be a sound mechanism for consultation with the states on major policies, although all would recognise that Central policy cannot be formulated and implemented on the basis of one hundred per cent consensus.

Perhaps, now that the budget session is drawing to a close, attention will be given to the urgent needs of creating a complete and functioning administrative apparatus. I am deliberately not speaking of administrative reform in this context or of the Lokpal or of judicial and police reforms, as these are massive exercises in themselves. Maybe August will be the defining month for the new administration. Maybe the prime minister’s address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort will lay out new paths. The danger to be avoided at all costs is the emergence of a new kind of paralysis in administration, arising from bottlenecks at the top.

The writer is a former cabinet secretary

express@expressindia.com

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