The relationship between civil servants and elected representatives is critical to governance. Over the years, it has become either adversarial or collusive. If we want to improve governance, we must create and nurture a cooperative environment in which stakeholders function in the national rather than personal or partisan interest. Bureaucrats must accept the supremacy of the political executive, just as people’s representatives must understand that bureaucrats have to work within rules that apply to all.
To restore the rule of law and good governance, we must clearly define the boundaries within which bureaucrats and ministers should function. Autonomy for civil servants does not mean that they are not accountable to the minister. It means they have the freedom to express their views on what constitutes the public interest without being influenced by what the minister’s view may be.
The bureaucrat is expected to a) provide information and advice to ministers and accurately present the options; b) take decisions on merit and in keeping with professional advice; c) not ignore inconvenient facts while giving advice or taking decisions; d) not act in a way determined by political considerations or use official resources for party or political purposes.
Ministers are expected to a) give due weight to impartial advice from civil servants; b) to uphold the political impartiality of the civil service; c) to ensure that influence over appointments is not abused; d) not engage in activities that invite criticism that civil servants are being used for political purposes; and e) not give directions that are in conflict with the Civil Service Code.
Autonomy should not be confused with lack of accountability. Autonomy is but one element in restoring the confidence of civil servants. More important, however, is the assurance that there will be no witch-hunting for decisions taken or advice given in good faith.
There is need for review of the recent decisions of the Supreme Court giving unbridled powers to the CBI to initiate investigation against senior officers. There is no doubt that the requirement of government approval before starting investigation against senior civil servants and political leaders was extensively misused to protect corrupt officers and politicians. But the remedy the court has prescribed is far worse than the disease.
I think RTI and effective enforcement of a citizens’ charter will ensure accountability of civil servants. It is difficult to say whether rules of governance are going to change. But if they do not change even after such an overwhelming and decisive mandate, it will be a sad commentary on our democracy.