IN the last seven decades, innumerable studies on civil services have been conducted from time to time. They have been read, commented on and forgotten. And now, a new and perhaps more comprehensive study on the civil service has been added to the existing literature, conclusions of which have been drawn from the enormous volume of data generated by several research studies. Sadly, it relates to the IAS only.
According to this relatively more credible study ‘IAS Meets Big Data’ by the Carnegie Institute, there is a lingering view that politicisation of civil services has become more, not less, entrenched. It says the World Bank’s government effectiveness index that captures the quality of country’s civil service and its independence from political pressure, places India in the 45th percentile globally, nearly 10 percentage point decline from country’s position in 1996, when the data was first collected. It concludes that political interference generates substantial inefficiency; the best officers do not always occupy important positions, while political loyalty offers bureaucrats an alternative path to career success.
The malady of political interference has its origin in the fifties and sixties when civil servants and political leaders started working together. With deepening democracy, it was expected that their respective roles would be defined in the context of our Constitution and refined further. Maturing democracy should have been accompanied by role definition, which unfortunately did not happen. The structural lethargy and high individual complacency levels prevented any attempt for role clarification. The vaguely defined equation that the political boss takes the decision and the bureaucrat carries it out, has left much room for irrationality, arbitrariness and indolence.
Since then, the organised poaching into legitimate jurisdiction of civil servants has frustrated the emergence of a mature relationship between the two important arms of the Executive. In more mature and stabilised parliamentary democracies, conventions and norms are so embedded in the culture of governance that there is any confusion of roles is unthinkable. Even in the Whitehall system, despite the hilarious caricatures of Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley, bureaucracy’s image as the repository of knowledge and administrative memory is never questioned.
As a result, whenever public policy formulation is characterised by enlightened political leadership, spectacular performance can be achieved. Give the civil servants citizen-centric decisions devoid of vested interests, and then hang them if they do not perform or misbehave.
The Carnegie Institute’s study, based on the data generated by a large number of research studies, comes to the conclusion that ‘political interference remains one of the biggest obstacles to bureaucratic effectiveness. Perhaps for the first time, researchers have drawn a clear, quantifiable links between the pervasive abuse of transfers and postings of civil servants and development outcomes’.
This is not a new revelation. To most students and observers of governance, it has always been patently obvious. But surprisingly, no worthwhile solution to this pernicious malady of India’s democratic functioning has ever been attempted. Even the voluminous Administrative Reforms Commission report recommends measures of softening the impact of political interference, not of eliminating it. Measures like Public Services Bill, Civil Services Bill Performance and Accountability Bill, etc., would serve a limited purpose without touching the root cause. No Chief Minister has yet announced the prohibition of pressure by any political functionary in the work of a civil servant.
THE study says, “According to a 2010 survey of civil servants, only 24 per cent believed that postings to sought-after stations were merit based. More broadly, nearly one in two respondents thought undue outside pressure was a significant problem.”
No amount of bureaucratic restructuring will change the reality. Even abolishing the IAS, as sought by some commentators, will not make any measurable change in the quality of governance till a cure of political interference is found.
Endpoint: Is it too late to attempt a bilateral model of citizen centric Politico-Bureaucratic relationship?
The writer was the Cabinet Secretary and the first Governor of Jharkhand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org