SWOOSH! Another civil service day has just passed like an ephemeral shower of April. Nothing seems to have changed a bit in government. Lawrence Peter of Peter Principle fame once said that bureaucracy defends status quo long past when quo has lost its status. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made another catchy speech, as has become his routine practice, bringing out his close proximity with the civil servants. He gave comfort to the assembled civil servants by describing them as people with great capability and said that these capabilities can contribute in a big way towards building the nation.
But by resorting to speak in generalities, he appeared a lot more distant from the bureaucrats on this occasion than before. In the first civil service day of his government, he had exhorted the civilians to inculcate the virtue of ‘sheelam’ (good conduct), urging them to maintain a positive outlook and spend quality time with their family as well. “Your life should not become a file,” the Prime Minister had said in 2015. He had said that teams of officers from various States should take up as case-studies and ensure that the best studies are adopted as best practices. He had also called upon the civil services to develop an institutional memory. To what extent have his directions been operationalised is not known.
The next year, he seemed to be in his elements when he impressed upon the need for civil servants to redefine their role and move beyond controlling, regulating and managerial capabilities, and think of themselves as change agents. Further, he urged them to engage with the people, so that the government’s schemes and initiatives can be better implemented on ground. I think that it was an excellent reform agenda and should have been pursued in a systemic manner. If the process of defining the respective roles of the political executive and permanent civil servant had been initiated, we would have seen some progress towards a more constructive relationship between the two by now.
Again in his address last year, the PM stressed upon indoctrinating a spirit of ownership of government policies and programmes. He sincerely believed that through this set up we could bring a positive change in people’s lives. He strappingly asserted that he did not lack the political will needed to carry out reforms as he asked the civil servants to break silos and work together as a team to perform and transform.
Known for his penchant for micro-managing the processes of governance, this time he stuck to ceremonial sermonising for simplification of procedures and referred to the delays in dealing with files in the ministries. He mocked the movement of papers and said that even ‘moksha’ can be attained quicker than taking a decision on the file. He knows that mere sermonising on an appointed day in a year is not enough. It won’t serve any purpose. We expect much better from him.
Narendra Modi is a great communicator. Yet he has failed to make senior civil servants share his dreams of a New India. Perhaps he is aware that his officers do not claim the ownership of Swachh Bharat or Digital India or Aspirational Young India. A lone crusader for an idea is generally not sufficient to move the giant official machinery.
In the four years of the tenure of his government, we in the IC Centre for Governance have been closely watching his reform agenda for the civil services. There has been some cosmetic treatment in the day-to-day working of ministries and departments, which is welcome; but no significant change has been brought about either in the approach of officials or in the encouragement of innovative ideas in administration.
Bureaucracy stands as devalued in the eyes of the citizen and the media as was never before. There is no effort at aggregating the good work being done by civil servants in various fields and regions.
We had hoped that Modi government will bring the Civil Services Bill in a revamped shape and an effective Central Right to Delivery of Services Bill would be tabled in the Parliament. We had expected that the much awaited amendments in the Prevention of Corruption Act would be enacted to reassure the honest civil servants. Nothing happened.
WE had hoped that the consistent weakening of established institutions would be arrested and enabling provisions would be put in place to enhance their public integrity and trustworthiness. We had hoped that the scheme of long-term civil service reforms would be laid down for being pursued in his next term in office.
Civil service reforms are not synonymous with sprucing up civil servants. That’s the least part of it. The reforms of the civil service should be seen as an integral component of governance reforms. Good administrative decisions should be evolved through a process of negotiations between the state and the recipients of the reforms. The wishes of the people could be expressed through organised groups in the society.
The ‘next step’ civil service reforms in United Kingdom commenced in 1988 on the basis of the report of Sir Robin Ibbs. He had outlined the major issues to be addressed as the lack of innovation in the civil service; large size of the service with job duplications; and poor policy advice and poor policy implementation. Our current situation is no different. We had hoped that Modi government would progressively deal with these issues. Slow movement of files is a small impediment in the process of taking quality decisions.
In the formative years of Indian democracy, when the two started working together, it was expected that the respective roles would be defined and further refined.
Intensifying democratic processes should have been accompanied by role definition, which unfortunately did not happen. Merely saying that ‘the politicians take decisions and the babus advise and implement’ was not enough. It left room for arbitrariness and sloth.
The vaguely defined rule of democratic supremacy of the political executive in decision-making unfortunately descended and permeated into the lower echelons of government, where the role of the civil servants was crucial to the implementation of the decisions taken upstairs.
Everything is not lost, yet. The Prime Minister can still initiate the process of defining the relationship between the bureaucrat and the politician in government. In my view, one year is adequate to set the process rolling.
Endpoint: When a journalist asked Sardar Patel whether he would remove his secretary for difference of opinion the Sardar replied, “No. But if he does not differ with me on any issue I will definitely remove him”