As civil service reforms go, the Niti Aayog’s Three Year Action Agenda: 2017-18 to 2019-2020, released recently, contains little that is new or innovative. The idea that policy making is a specialized activity and needs lateral entrant of specialists on fixed-term contracts to bring in competition into established career bureaucracy has been talked about for years and is a tautology today. The same goes for making the goals and progress available publicly to incentivize delivery and measure performance objectively, with high performance rewarded and poor performance reprimanded. Likewise, E-governance is no new beer, as is outsourcing of services; they’re old wine in new bottles.
The only innovation, if one can call it so, seems the plea for longer tenure of Secretaries. It creates two important inefficiencies. One, with a time horizon shorter than two years, the officer is hesitant to take any major initiatives. Two, and more importantly, to the extent that any misstep may become the cause for charges of favouritism or corruption post retirement, the officer hesitates to take decisions on any major project. This causes an inordinate amount of delay in decision-making. The inefficiencies are two-fold: (a) hesitation to take any major initiative; and (b) fear of misstep to take decisions on any major project.
It’s bemusing how these two inefficiencies can be overcome with longer tenures. For one, empirically, officers with tenures of more than 2 and going up to 3/4 years haven’t fared any better than the ones with shorter tenures. Lack of foresight and initiative aside, to be fair, they have been moved around to more than 2-3 departments/ministries, thereby not granting them the time needed to settle down and make salutary contributions. But it’s not fair to blame the system entirely for there are departments/ministries that are low/high in the mandarin’s perception/weight indices and with the long window available to them, there is the human urge for upward pecking mobility. Lobbying, jostling, networking (see the work-hours wasted here!), nepotism, and favouring the powers-that-be through subtle sleight of hand are rife. One has with growing frustration seen how people with no little knowledge/experience, but with the right “connect” and “networking”, go up and up the proverbial totem pole only because the new post figures high in the perception-cum-weighty index and is a better springboard for post-retirement sinecures. This is the nub.
Like statistics, the Niti Aayog’s eggheads conceal more than what they reveal; its platitudinous recipe is less relevant than what it shrouds: post-retirement sinecures. The heart of the problem is that no bureaucrat (apart from one-odd outliers) ever wants to retire. In a feudal mindset, retirement sucks: identity-loss after a lifetime of humongous ego-trips and condescension, vanishing into the woodwork is the hardest ask; retirement is sudden cold-blooded cremation. Hence exists the the intense urge to stay on somehow. It is also the reason why senior officers close to R-Days take calculated and “desperate” gambles to “oblige” political masters at the cost of their much vaunted “professional ethics”. In effect, the two “inefficiencies” stay. One wishes the Niti Aayog had provided answer to this endemic nettlesome syndrome that defeats every sanguine public motivation.
One wonders how practical and efficacious Niti Aayog’s suggestion for specialization and induction of lateral recruits for a fixed tenure is. No questions are asked on the need for specialists and domain experts in public policy, but the issue is: Given the bureaucratic construct, will this behemoth of bureaucracy easily admit and acknowledge the role and contribution of the newbie, especially when their own unimaginative low-performance and lassitude hitherto unquestioned will (inevitably) be shown in poor light in comparison. Though a fixed tenure might help shielding the laterals from being junked midway, will frustration not creep into their day-to-day efficiency, thereby nullifying the cross-pollination and cross-fertilization of their ideas? Will they be accorded their due for the contribution made to improve public policy and the same acted upon without bureaucratic machinations and legerdemain? Or will the ear of political masters earned by mandarins negate any such noble impulses making it a zero-sum game?
Rather than shooting the breeze, I wish the Niti Aayog had drawn an earthy roadmap. A host of issues glibly prescribed will amount to nothing if they are not implementable. To be fair, E-office, long overdue, is the way to go; when I was holding additional charge as Additional Secretary & Financial Advisor of the Ministry of Civil Aviation more than 2 years ago, it had gained currency. It was liberating to retrieve data in a jiffy; it granted flexibility. I could work in my parent Ministry of Environment and Forests in Indira Paryavaran Bhavan rather than getting the files over or going over to the civil aviation ministry located in the Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan. Not to forget that electronic transactions don’t lie on such (seemingly) small matters as date/time of disposal. The embedded system and escalation facilities can show stark delays, apart from alerting the higher ups of such delays. E-governance needs implementation within a tight timeframe.
The larger issue is of efficiency: will e-office for all its good, engage the citizen through the electronic medium and make governance effective? Only early last year several directions of finance ministry to upload fairly innocuous information in the website went unheeded lest it attract public ire.
Public policy issues are roiled – apart from the much-maligned and putative red-tape-worm – in time-worn vested interest, personal advancement, colonial baggage and mindset. Holistically, the answer is in tightening governance’s value system. Financial malfeasance is bad, but worse is intellectual dishonesty, subtly crafted under the guise of amnesic mnemonics, poor data analysis and obfuscating interstitial interpretation kept under wraps in grimy official records. Financial misgivings no matter how convoluted they are, still palpate; intellectual dishonesty covertly hemorrhages.
For a feudal society with a bespoke traditional mindset of grand reparative gestures to espouse and promote the biradiri cause and where the state is seen as omnipotent and where few realize power is but abuse of power, it is imperative to have an arm’s-length system.
But is that enough? Maybe not. There could be a need to actualize implication of Robert Klitgaard’s formula on dishonesty: Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability (C=M+D-A). Even that too may not be enough. Proactive disclosure provided under Section 4 of the RTI Act 2005 will need to be sculpted into the e-governance platform. In this our Indian Gilded Age, the atmosphere is agog with ideas and impulses despite the consistent stonewalling of the established order. Citizen rants against diminishing public value are getting louder by the day.
True, in today’s battle of dialectics opacity wins, but then for how long? Over time and amid battling dialectics, society’s voice will inexorably tilt in transparency’s favour. The USA too went through the Gilded Age and the trauma of the robber barons. They came out of it triumphant through laws crafted in the teeth of opposition. For us the battle may be long and hard too but it’s time we had better see the future. I wish the Niti Aayog had the vision to sense a Eureka moment here and suggested measures to move in that direction.
The author has been the Additional Secretary & Financial Advisor, Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change; the Controller General of Defence Accounts and thereafter as the Financial Advisor to Defence Services in the Ministry of Defence. The views expressed are personal