The diffident bureaucrat
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In his address on Civil Services Day, the prime minister advised civil servants "to fight the tendency of not taking decisions because of the fear that things might go wrong and they might be penalised for that." He went on to say that the bureaucracy should not be "100 per cent risk averse" and concluded, rightly, that "a civil servant who does not take decisions might always be safe, but at the end of the day he or she would have contributed nothing to our society".
These views cannot be faulted. Indeed, over the past several months, while we have debated many issues, we have forgotten that, at the grassroots level, service delivery is in the hands of civil servants. If they fail to take decisions in time, governance will be seriously damaged. We need to ask why civil servants are risk-averse and what needs to be done to give them confidence.
The root of the problem lies in the administrative system that we have inherited and which we have sustained through the years. Any system based on distrust will tend to build safeguards and hurdles that inhibit, rather than promote, decision-making. The tendency of a middle-class, god-fearing bureaucrat who wants to survive without getting into serious controversy would be to avoid decisions. Exhortations are unlikely to yield results. The only option is systemic change. Unfortunately, as most civil servants are lost in the routine of administration, very little time is devoted to reforms, as important in governance as in the economic sphere.
This is not to say that fear paralyses all functionaries. In my various incarnations in government, I have come across young officers who have significantly contributed to streamlining administration, starting innovative projects and reaching out to the people. I do not subscribe to the view that young officers today are less capable and more susceptible to temptation than civil servants of my generation, or even earlier, were. Of course, times have changed. What could be swept under the carpet a few years ago is now open to public scrutiny. This could create an illusion of lower ethical standards but it is not my view that there has been a deterioration in the quality of administrative leadership.
What has changed is that decision-making has become more complex and difficult. In most cases, when a civil servant takes a decision, he works in a zone of uncertainty. He does not have all the facts. He does not know all the possible outcomes. Yet he has to take a decision because he has no time. He has to respond to a situation. His decision, taken in good faith, may well prove wrong when judged in the future. Indeed, it could even look like an act of corruption or malfeasance. The court of law or an inquiry commission, the CAG or the CVC, looking into an administrative decision, has the benefit of hindsight. It has all the facts at its disposal, knows the outcome and, therefore, can pronounce with authority on what was right and what was wrong.
There have been many cases in the recent past when the sins of commission and, more often, of omission in the higher echelons of administration have been visited on junior functionaries. Perhaps the big difference between authority in the past and authority now is the reluctance on the part of the senior to take responsibility for the actions he has knowingly taken and to shift the blame as far down as possible. This is not an environment conducive to decision-making.
The problem is compounded by political action, which can sometimes be arbitrary, capricious and manifestly unfair. In a state I had visited as cabinet secretary, DMs and SPs complained that the average tenure of officers in each district was incredibly short — sometimes even a month. Occasionally, when an officer reached a district, he would find someone else occupying the chair and transfer orders awaiting him. Punishment need not necessarily be through a disciplinary proceeding or in response to a mistake, intended or otherwise. Punishment through transfers and humiliation can be inflicted for reasons of political inconvenience. In such circumstances, an honest officer would rather avoid decisions than take them.
In the present system, no effort is made to link performance with reward. Seniority has precedence over merit. Non-action (and consequent avoidance of mistakes) plus seniority is a sure-shot combination for climbing up the hierarchical ladder. Of course, a bit of political savvy would help. Also a big slice of luck, as in any aspect of life.
Where do we go from here? First, put in place a performance-appraisal system that recognises merit. Promotions and empanelments should be based on performance rather than marks secured in an examination decades ago. Second, take a close look at disciplinary proceedings. If we want to ensure that unintended mistakes are not penalised, we should examine the work of an officer and his reputation in its entirety. It would be best if the disciplinary authority had the benefit of a prior assessment of the overall performance of the officer, preferably by a panel of serving or retired officials. Third, shorten the period for disciplinary proceedings. Fourth, some element of supervision has to be exercised by the Department of Personnel and Training over cadre-controlling authorities, be they state governments or central ministries. Arbitrary action will lead to a loss of morale. Enforceable guidelines need to be laid down to ensure that officers are not unfairly treated.
Fifth, agencies like the CAG must be encouraged to look at any activity holistically rather than in bits and pieces. If corners have been cut in the pursuit of any lawful objective or goal that is beneficial to the people, the agencies should project the whole picture, not just what went wrong. Sixth, while the RTI Act has brought in a measure of transparency, there are cases where it has been misused. Particular administrative actions have been given interpretations that are far removed from the truth. Unfortunate publicity has also been given to unsubstantiated allegations against individual officers. To protect the rights of the individual, there should be provision for legal remedy. Parliament needs to look at a possible privacy act, which exists in many other countries, and at the provisions for defamation.
Finally, a word for the media. Civil servants, particularly the honest among them, are highly vulnerable. The anti-establishment stance probably sells more, but restraint and balance are required while reporting. Also, giving some publicity to the good work they have done would play a big role in rebuilding our country and its administration.
The writer, a former cabinet secretary, is vice-chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board
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