The Union government, after consultations with the states, has amended the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968, to include a list of 19 dos and don’ts for Central-service officers. Platitudes such as “refrain from doing anything which is or may be contrary to any law”, “take decisions solely in public interest”, “maintain high ethical standards, integrity and honesty” and “act with fairness and impartiality” have now been enshrined in the rules. Although its election manifesto said that administrative reforms would be a “priority” for the BJP, so far, the record of the Modi administration — admittedly, still in its early days — has been underwhelming. While some of the changes effected, like doing away with GoMs and EGoMs and rationalising departmental responsibilities, have been welcome, and others like keeping out civil servants from ministers’ personal staff who have worked in the UPA regime have been controversial, there has been no big push towards overhauling the administration. There seems to be an over-reliance, in fact, on oversight by the PMO — no matter how strict and meticulous it claims to be, there is simply no substitute for good institution design.
On bureaucratic reform, the Modi government doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It could start by implementing some of the exhaustive recommendations of the 15-volume report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), set up in 2005 under the chairmanship of M. Veerappa Moily. Even a casual review of the government’s decisions on the recommendations is enough to show how little progress has been made. For instance, in order to simplify transactions, the commission recommended single-window clearances and that the principle of positive silence (if an application is not processed within the stipulated time period, the licence is deemed to have been granted) be adopted. Elsewhere, the report suggests each public-facing department make a list of its activities that involve an element of discretion, which should then be minimised.
The focus of reform should not be on the upper echelons of policymaking and bureaucracy alone. Most citizens only ever deal with class three-level bureaucrats.
Service delivery, which impacts the lowest common denominator, needs to be overhauled. In this context, the Modi government’s decision to push for self-attestation of documents and minimise the use of affidavits is a step in the right direction.