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Civil Services

TIME FOR REDEDICATION

By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi  speaking to civil servants on the Civil Services Day (21st April), reminded them that the sooner the government would change from being a regulator to an enabler, the faster the challenge of competition would turn into an opportunity.

The function this year, described as a day for “rededication” of civil servants for honest service to the nation and its people, raised more than the usual enthusiasm among the participants and higher than normal expectations among the general public in view of the great importance currently placed on good governance.  It was also an occasion for the government and people to re-orient the system to suit changing requirements and priorities.  The system has to keep evolving so that it does not degenerate as an irrelevant colonial relic that has outlived its utility.

Even in this era of professional experts and technological giants, there is need for generalists to approach public issues in a holistic manner. Generalists are like general practitioners of medicine and family doctors catering to varied   situations and ailments and retaining their place in this age of specialisation.

Prime Minister’s speech on this day contains some thought-provoking advice, which can help re-orient the civil service organisation to move with the times.  “Make excellence a habit”, he said, and conveyed his faith in the maxim that, “we have to change our working style”.   Change is emphasised as a principal tool for good governance when the PM stated: “It is important to make ourselves relevant in changing times or else, we will become irrelevant”.

The administrative culture that is being imposed on the civil service is “outcome-centric vision of governance”. Hence, the PM was not enamoured of achievements quoted in terms of statistics which he described as “jugglery”.

Five motivational factors are to be cultivated by political and bureaucratic chiefs.   Transformation from being a regulator to an enabler, effective  qualitative  improvement  along with quantitative jump,  push  for reform from political angle and performance from officials,  promotion of spirit of ownership, and  removal of  restrictions  of hierarchy in the interest of performance are recognized  as necessary  for reinventing the civil service.

Responsibilities of government officials have grown in terms of challenges they face in every aspect of life.  Human progress has not simplified life, but on the contrary, introduced very many complexities.

Good governance is committed to enhancement of the quality of life – a goal that can be achieved only with integration of knowledge, abilities, and ethical make up of persons vested with the responsibility for governance. Therefore, constant trimming of the role and responsibility of the civil service stands on top of the agenda in establishing good governance.

Max Weber has pointed out that bureaucracies are central to emergence and growth of modern capitalism. He considered impersonality and impartiality as the special virtues of bureaucracy.  But in course of time, these same virtues have led to certain serious deficiencies like “red tape”, lack of initiative and innovation, disinterestedness, and poor service delivery, and corruption.

Civil Service – the generic term used to designate servants of the State or the government employed as civilians – is a sub-division grouped with the “executive”. All employees of the government are not civil servants. There are only about 60,000 civil servants in the country constituting a rank-based system manning a vast bureaucracy. At the top is the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) followed by Central Services.  There is also a police service (IPS).   Senior civil servants may be called to account by Parliament.

The guiding principle of civil service remains unchanged as given by Queen Elizabeth I to her Secretary over 400 years ago  that: “you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the State and that without respect of my private will ,you will give me that counsel which you think best”.

A certain standard of ethics is required of civil servants in India. Principal among these are : to discharge official duty with responsibility, honesty, accountability, and without discrimination;  ensure  effective management, leadership development, and personal growth; avoid misuse of official position or information; and to serve as instruments of good governance and foster social-economic development.

The Indian civil service has been modelled on the British system and independent India accepted it   as “the steel frame that holds this country together”. Recruited by a centralised authority, civil servants are posted in all parts of the country.

Several studies have pointed out the need to reform the civil service in India. We may brush aside the Carneige study (2011) as over-emphasising corruption and politicization in the Indian civil service which plague bureaucracy all over the world.  But, we cannot ignore the findings of the Second Administrative Commission of India (2005) on undue political interference, inadequate accountability mechanisms and capacity building. Rajiv Gandhi, referring to rampant corruption in administration through several levels is reported to have confessed that only 16 paise out of every rupee reached the actual beneficiaries who were poor.

Modi’s assurance on the Civil Services Day that he would  stand by them if they took decisions with honest intentions  and in public interest  is undoubtedly needed in the present age of widespread corruption in numerous forms. It was reiteration of his advice to Secretaries of central government departments soon after assuming office in 2014 to get in touch with him directly whenever required to resolve issues and expedite decision-making. He stressed the importance of collective action and team spirit.  Simplifying and streamlining procedures formed important part of his agenda for good governance.

Misuse of official machinery mostly results from political-administrative collaboration and occurs at every level of governance.  The Supreme Court said in a case in 2013 that much of the deterioration of the standards of probity and accountability with the civil servants was due to political influence and directed Central and State governments to free the bureaucracy from  political  stranglehold by constituting civil services board. The Bench considered that recording of instructions and directions was necessary for fixing responsibility and ensuring accountability in the functioning of civil servants and upholding institutional integrity.

Today, the bureaucracy enjoys enormous powers as technological revolution demands and facilitates greater delegation and decentralisation. Public perception of civil servants, however, is not very favourable as expectations are rising and administrative performance does not keep pace. Public awareness has also risen and is able to sense the deficiencies in delivery of services.  Emboldened by media support, people are ready to respond and react to decisions of governing authorities.  The Right to Information and easy access to government information are bound to keep the entire bureaucracy with the top civil servants on their toes.

At the same time, the positive role of civil servants in many States in carrying on administration when political bosses are fighting for power and positions cannot be belittled.

Wholesale reform of civil service is not easy. Nor is it necessary.  Difficulties highlight a Catch 22 situation wherein the very things we want to change make change impossible, however, intense our efforts may be.  All we need is a high ethical standard combined with pragmatic and human approach to public issues. –INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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