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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Five measures to reform the bureaucracy

Catch them young, train them frequently, invest in specialisation, measure governance quality and desist from appointing retired officials.

Written by Amitabha Bhattacharya |
Updated: March 8, 2021 6:04:49 pm
Only a strong-minded and reform-oriented Prime Minister, with wide public support, can take the bureaucracy by the horn and make headway. (Source Twitter/@narendramodi)

The Prime Minister’s recent remarks in Parliament criticising, rather uncharacteristically, the pervasive influence of IAS officers on our system of governance has met with low-key but predictable reaction. The PM is the final authority in matters of all senior appointments, and for disciplining them. What prompted his criticism in the context of greater private sector participation in national development? Was he sending a message to the babus, while hinting also at the performance of the netas? One can only speculate.

The main reason the reaction has been mild is that there is truth in his statement, whatever be the causative factors. Looking at it positively, this dismay should make concerned citizens and leaders of bureaucracy introspect on how to make the IAS, in particular, more responsive, efficacious, and professionally better equipped to meet emerging challenges. Long due reforms with a view to strengthening, not just tinkering with, the steel-frame would call for bold decisions to be taken against some populist and established trends. Since the PM, perhaps the most powerful in recent decades, means business, he can accomplish this task in the next two to three years. Here are five suggested measures that have been voiced from time to time, including by this commentator.

Reform at the recruitment stage: The IAS and other services should start attracting at a much younger age some of the best products of our finest educational institutions. In order to achieve this, first, a national campaign should be mounted to motivate the brightest to take the plunge; second, the age of entry and the attempts allowed to appear for the preferred service should be substantially reduced; third, the examination process should be compressed. The recruits should spend their most productive years serving the nation, not in the arduous examination process. Besides, merit should be valued as much as diligence. But none of these can be achieved without a decisive political push from the highest level.

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Train the recruits frequently: The curriculum at the academies, as in Mussoorie, should be revised periodically in keeping with the challenges of the time. Administration is far more complex these days and nothing can prepare a trainee better than an intensive exposure to a well-conceived and rigorous programme. Both induction training and subsequent in-service ones, tailored to specific needs, should be integrated with one’s career progression. Training should be valued much more, not as relaxation time after an exhausting examination or a break from the rigours of field/office work. This issue can be handled by a group of experts alone, with a clear mandate.

Sectoral specialisations within broad generalisation: IAS officers have always been, at senior and policy-making levels, using the services of subject-matter specialists. But even to discuss matters with specialists, a clear understanding of technical issues is often necessary. Inadequate appreciation of the nuances and implications of available choices restricts their capacity to take an informed view and render the right advice to the Minister. This results in delay and clumsy decision-making.

There is, therefore, an urgent need for specialisation in broad sectors such as the financial, infrastructural, social and regulatory ones, after the officers complete 10-12 years at the sub-district and district levels. State governments, in consultation with the IAS associations, and other experts, can start identifying officers — based on their qualification, aptitude, preference and track-record, from the seventh year onwards in an open and participative manner — for such specialisation verticals. This is an intense exercise but doable nevertheless, with the support from state chief Ministers, and a gentle yet firm push from the PM.

Use big data to measure governance quality: Criticising governance quality without being able to measure it leads to subjective and often erroneous conclusions. Institutions like the Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru and Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford have been attempting to identify indices and parameters for such measurement in ranking states in India based on governance (Public Affairs Index – Governance in the States of India – 2020) and ranking countries based on civil service effectiveness (International Civil Service Effectiveness Index 2019), respectively. We should devise appropriate methods to measure the performance of, say, departments/state governments, based on big data. This, in turn, would reflect on the performance appraisal of the bureaucratic leaders. For example, the secretary of a poorly performing department cannot be rated as outstanding.

Experience shows that non-application of mind and refusal to take initiative or decision (often arising from lack of subject-matter knowledge and fear of being punished or prosecuted later) have perhaps done much more harm to governance than even corruption. While good performers should be encouraged and protected for decisions taken in good faith, periodic cleansing of the incorrigible deadwood through judicious use of the Fundamental and other disciplinary rules is also as important.

Discourage the practice of appointing retiring/retired officers: Clever bureaucrats know the advantages of being on the right side of power and that any “extra” help rendered will never go unrewarded. Unfortunately, this perception demotivates the honest and hard-working ones who constitute the overwhelming majority in the higher bureaucracy. Therefore, except for very few Constitutional posts like the CAG’s, most of the quasi-judicial posts may perhaps be offered to officers well before their retirement, discouraging service beyond their normal age of superannuation. Such a step, that no political dispensation is likely to agree to, would go a long way in eliminating the widely prevalent practice of sycophancy and favour-seeking. Outstanding retired officers can always be used in myriad other advisory capacities.

Only a strong-minded and reform-oriented Prime Minister, with wide public support, can take the bureaucracy by the horn and make headway, working in tandem with the state governments and other stakeholders. Blaming the system without reforming it can turn out to be largely symbolic.

The writer retired as Principal Adviser (Education and Culture), Planning Commission, New Delhi. He has been a senior faculty at the IAS training academy at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie

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