Far from the lofty beginning of being espoused as the steel frame of the country, representing the essential spirit of the Indian nation—unity in diversity—the years since Independence have been marked by a steady deterioration of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). According to a recent survey of the bureaucracies of 12 Asian economies, India’s “suffocating bureaucracy” has been ranked as the least-efficient, and working with the country’s civil servants is described as a “slow and painful” process. Indian bureaucrats are said to be power centres in their own right, both at the national and state levels, and are quite resistant to reforms that affect them or the way they go about discharging their duties.
Good govenance is basic to all reforms and changes in society. Given the significance of the bureaucracy in India’s development, some of the major changes that need to be incorporated in order to improve the IAS’s efficiency and performance are highlighted be-low. Based on my research, I have conceptualized an agency-based model of IAS. The significant features of the model are given below.
First, the bureaucratic structure in India is, to a large extent, an insulated labour market. The country should aim to develop a cadre of professional senior managers to support ministers in policy formulation and implementation. These should be lateral-entry contractual jobs with a well-defined career progression. Senior civil servants’ selection should be about identifying good managers for the public sector and should consist of individuals who have had an outstanding record of running public or private businesses, and/or strategic planning and execution of large public projects. Exceptional performers among those IAS officers who have entered through the civil service examination (conducted by the Union Public Service Commission or UPSC) should also be absorbed into the senior civil service. Creating a senior civil service will break the insulation of the IAS and will present as an incentive for the officers to work harder.
Second, public bureaucratic departments should be converted into national-level and state-level executive agencies. Each executive agency should be headed by a chief executive officer selected from the senior civil service and should have considerable operating freedom, subject, however, to the policy and resources framework set out by the ministers and Parliament.
Before forming an agency, however, some tough questions should be addressed: Should the agency be formed at all? If yes, could it be privatized or contracted out? Does the work overlap with that of other departments? Can multiple departments be merged into a single one?
Once the decision to form an agency is taken, the agency should come out with its citizens’ charter, clearly listing its mandate, objectives, performance indicators, timeframe for providing the services and budget. Citizens’ rights, departmental responsibilities, quality of service and timeframe for providing the service should be clearly specified. The agencies should receive targets from the govenment/ministers and be answerable in Parliament about the achievement of those targets.
Apart from receiving the targets, politicians should have no say over the day-to-day operations of the agency. The chief executive officer, and not the minister, should be responsible for answering questions in Parliament on the achievement of targets and on the performance of the agency.
Third, the citizens (customers) availing of the service should be involved in the evaluation of IAS officers. The UPSC should involve representatives from former senior civil servants, distinguished judges, citizens and academicians working in the sphere of public policy and social welfare in the evaluation of civil servants. The UPSC should be responsible for the appraisals of chief executives only. All other officers should be appraised through systems and processes set up by the agency. Achievement of the performance targets by the agency should be evaluated by collecting data from the customers the agency served. The agency’s performance should solely determine decisions regarding pay and promotions for chief executives. Similar to the Indian Army, the postings of IAS officers should be categorized according to its demand and difficulty, so as to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance to serve in both important and difficult (such as in remote and tribal areas) assignments. A mix of postings should be created for all officers.
Fourth, all matters relating to corruption and misconduct of IAS officers should be referred to the Central Vigilance Commission, which should have the power to investigate cases and implement the judgements/decisions reached. A timeframe should be decided beforehand within which the matter has to be investigated and a decision reached. A separate civil service court should be set up to determine the guilt of the members of civil services and to decide upon the punishment. The civil service court should be able to try personnel for all kinds of offences except for murder and rape of a civilian, which should primarily be tried by a civilian court of law. Political and govenment authorities should have no interference in the functioning of the civil service court. As has been done in Japan and Singapore, offenders and personnel found guilty of corruption should also be subjected to public shaming.
Fifth, each executive agency should come out with the budgets at the beginning of the year. These budgets should be audited and cleared by a committee formed by Parliament. Beyond the auditing exercise, Parliament should have no role in determining how the money should be spent. Instead, the chief executive officers of the agencies should have full freedom to use the money allotted to them. At the end of the year, chief executive officers should submit a record of their expenditures to the parliamentary committee.
Agencies should be encouraged to identify means of generating revenues to offset the spending, so that the total govenment spending can be controlled. For this, the user-pay principle, as adopted in Australia and New Zealand, should be explored. Agencies should be made to pay for availing of the services of other govenment agencies. Chief executive officers should be evaluated at the year-end on their performance and on the delivery of the outputs based on the standards decided upon earlier.
In order for the above-mentioned reforms to be effective, there are some supporting conditions that are necessary: First, political commitment for the reforms is essential. Second, the involvement of IAS officers in the change process from the very beginning can accelerate the process.
Canada and the UK began their administrative change process by setting up task forces and scrutiny exercises that were headed by civil servants who had volunteered for a scrutiny, and evolved the needed changes. Third, the civil society’s patience and support while the change happens would be needed. An effective public service serves and also draws support from a lot of groups such as citizens’ associations, non-govenmental organizations, industry and trade associations, trade unions, academic institutions, media etc. These groups are sources of various skills, ideas, competencies and commitments required for sustaining administrative reforms. Finally, there must be recognition that reform is a continuing, long-term process and that it will be continuous. Long-term flexibility and willingness to change and innovate will be critical for the reform agenda.
Vishal Gupta is an assistant professor in the organizational behaviour area. His current areas of research are public sector management, creativity and innovation management, positive psychology and organizational performance.
The article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.
First published in 'View from IIMA' column in Mint.