Public services reform

S.S. MEENAKSHISUNDARAM

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IN the Arthashastra, Kautilya, while elaborating the traits of a good ruler, writes: ‘In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself, he shall not consider as good but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good.’

As per the Oxford dictionary, governance is an act or a manner of governing or a way of control. Pai Panandiker broadly defines governance as the management of the affairs of the state, basically delivering to the citizen the rights and other provisions enshrined in the Constitution of each country that makes political, economic and social life of the citizen rich in its quality. Good governance therefore implies that the affairs of the state are so managed that the material and the social well-being of the citizens is effectively looked after within a system of properly organized institutions of governance.

In the Human Development Report, 1997, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has summed up elements of good governance thus: people’s participation, rule of law, transparency, responsiveness, consensus orientation in decision-making, equity, effectiveness and efficiency, accountability and strategic vision. These characteristics have to be built into a corruption free administration to provide good governance to the people.

What does good governance mean in the Indian context? Under Articles 53 and 74 of the Constitution of India, the executive power of the Union government is vested in the President who shall exercise the same either directly or through the officers subordinate to him in accordance with the Constitution. The council of ministers with the prime minister as the head, aid and advise the President in the exercise of this power. Similarly, Articles 154 and 163 of the Constitution vest the executive power of the state in the Governor, who shall exercise the same, either directly or through officers subordinate to him, on the advice of the council of ministers with the chief minister as the head.

 

 

Thus, as per the Indian Constitution, the permanent executive of the government carries out the affairs of the government according to the decisions of the political executive. In this process, the permanent executive will have to be guided by the law of the land and the Constitution. The accepted norms of governance developed over the years, which are usually codified in the form of rules and procedures, guide the permanent executive in the discharge of its responsibilities. Since any change in these procedures involves lengthy and cumbersome processes, the civil service generally becomes inflexible and rigid even if some procedures have outlived their utility.

Any reforms in governance will, therefore, have to cover all levels of government, both bureaucratic and political. These reforms will have to aim at changing the attitude of all functionaries of the government and hence the reform process will first have to take a close look at the existing processes and procedures. A comprehensive strategy for good governance must include the following ingredients: (a) people’s participation; (b) citizens’ charter; (c) public services reforms; (d) effective performance appraisal; and (e) external oversight mechanisms.

This paper essentially looks at only one component of this strategy, viz., the public services reforms and its role in good governance. This paper is divided into three parts. The first part explains the present picture of public services in India, the second highlights a few areas that need specific attention for better public service performance, while the concluding section summarizes the environmental changes required for better governance.

 

 

The prime minister of India in his address to the National Development Council on 19 February 1999 stated: ‘People often perceive the bureaucracy as an agent of exploitation rather than a provider of service. Corruption has become a low risk and high reward activity. Frequent and arbitrary transfers combined with limited tenures are harming the work ethic and lowering the morale of honest officers. While expecting discipline and diligence from the administration, the political executive should self-critically review its own performance. Unless we do this, we cannot regain credibility in the eyes of the people who have elected us to serve them.’

This aptly sums up the present picture of Indian bureaucracy. Public administration and the civil services in India at all levels are passing through difficult times in terms of eroded credibility and effectiveness. There is a growing public perception of an unholy nexus between certain elements among politicians and civil servants and criminals. Honesty is at its lowest level. Transparency and accessibility to the political and bureaucratic elements in charge of administration seldom exist. Pursuit of career advancement has taken precedence over ethical values.

 

 

This has serious implications for fiscal discipline as well. Because of low institutional capability and poor performance of civil servants, politicians have resorted to populism in order to reach at least some benefits to citizens, to keep their faith alive in the political system. Subsidies on water, power and transport have been resorted to in several states to maintain the credibility of our democratic system, since the voter does not seem to get any other benefit from the bureaucracy. As the entire social sector programmes are implemented by the state level field machinery, a civil service renewal programme which improves public satisfaction has to be urgently evolved, not only for effective implementation of development programmes but also to restore public confidence in the system.

While public service reforms for better governance has several facets, there are certain key areas which need to be specifically looked at in the Indian context. Some operational decisions, which are urgently required, as a part of the efforts to provide good governance are narrated below.

Accountability: At present it is difficult for an average citizen to have access to information about schemes that affect him. The complicated procedures distance government from the people who are sought to be provided with services and create potential sources of corruption. Computer based information systems can help cut out discretion and delay, like installing a system where one inserts a ten rupee note and gets a land ownership record. Each department can have a citizen’s charter establishing clearly enforceable norms.

While codification of the delegation of powers between ministers and the bureaucracy is necessary, it must also be ensured that the delegated powers are exercised. There is a need to reduce levels in the hierarchy and make administration officer-oriented so that responsibility can be fixed on an individual. Audit should focus more on the output of a scheme than on procedures. Instead of post-audit, concurrent audit must be introduced. Departments such as police and revenue which have direct dealings with the people must be assessed, at least once in three years, by an independent professional organization consisting of eminent men from the public, including non government organizations (NGOs).

Action against corrupt officers in many states cannot be initiated now as the power to sanction prosecution is vested in the state governments. This may be made a semi-judicial process where a designated authority can sanction prosecution on receipt of complaint from the investigating agencies.

 

 

Redefining the role of government: The Constitution 73rd Amendment envisages decentralization of powers in favour of the elected local bodies. However, in many states, administrative and financial powers are still concentrated in their secretariats and directorates. The principle of subsidiarity has to be strictly enforced to ensure that works get entrusted to the appropriate level of government for efficient execution. Devolution of spending responsibilities and revenue raising powers to elected local bodies can ensure significant gains in service quality as well as accountability.

The civil service must also shift its focus from being a provider and regulator to that of a facilitator. Government should outsource as many activities as possible so that the civil service concentrates only on the essentials. What the government does not have to do, or what others can do more efficiently, is better to off load rather than keep with the government. Historically, when we achieved independence, there were several subjects that the government had to handle. This need not be the situation now.

 

 

Long before independence, for example, forests were managed by the local people as were the irrigation tanks. For historical reasons we centralized all of them. A forest department was created, the Forest Act came into being, leading to a concept that the forest belongs to the government or to the ‘public’ and not to the local people. The situation has now gone to an extreme – if the local people even get into what is called a reserve forest, they have to be thrown out under the law.

On the question of irrigation tanks, the local people decided who grew what kind of crops and what the cropping pattern of the place should be. That has also been given up. It is now the responsibility of government.

There is need to consciously revert natural resource management back to the local people. If necessary, there should be an act or a guideline to encourage social fencing as a matter of state policy. This will help the government in finding money for the social sectors and other sectors where government has a lot to do. This will give adequate time to examine and abolish schemes and programmes that have outlived their utility and merge schemes that are similar in nature. Second, it may help create healthy competition between the private and public sectors.

Transparency and right to information: As a rule, most of the decisions in government are taken behind closed doors and an air of secrecy generally pervades its functioning. There is a need to share more information with the people and make the process of decision-making transparent. Amendments need to be made to the Official Secrets Act as well as the Civil Services Code of Conduct to facilitate transparency. The public should have easy access to government orders, forms etc. These can even be made available at post offices, banks and fair-price shops; the existing grievance redressal centres in all offices should be converted into public facilitation centres, with people encouraged to obtain information relevant to their needs.

There has to be a periodic review of rules and simplification of procedures, besides reducing the discretionary powers to a minimum. There is a need to legislate a Right to Information Act in every state and each department should bring out a compendium of all the relevant forms, which the public have to use, and made available at a single place. The renewal period for licenses etc. can be enhanced so as to reduce transactional costs.

 

 

Monitoring and evaluation of programmes: Implementation of development programmes needs to be more effective. Close monitoring could be organized in select areas like primary health, primary education, watershed development and empowerment of local people. Through a process of stratified random sampling, five to ten villages can be identified in every state for impact studies and for making periodic progress reports in these sectors. This work can be entrusted to academic institutions or consultants. Allocation of additional funds to the states can be made in such a manner that those who perform better get a corresponding weight-age over others who do not effectively implement the programmes.

Also, as part of external mechanisms, civil society organizations can ensure that the public sector performs and problems are brought to the notice of the public. Second, a free press can certainly take on the role of a watchdog. It can always check whether the public agencies perform or not. And the third is social audit by something like the gram sabha. After the constitutional amendment we have a forum for participative democracy. If the gram sabhas function, the representatives of the village have to stand before the electorate and explain what they have done or not done. If we have such direct accountability mechanisms, both sides will be alert. It is possible that with minor tinkering and a careful analysis of what people are doing, we will be able to achieve good governance through public reforms.

 

 

Improving systems and methods: The paper work in government offices should be reduced by abolishing all unnecessary reports and returns and reducing the number of routine circulars. The existing system of file movement has to be thoroughly recast making it officer oriented and reducing the number of levels through which a file has to pass before a final decision is taken. Merging field departments with the secretariat can substantially reduce the time taken in decision-making. The number of meetings both at the secretariat and the field levels should also be drastically reduced so as to provide adequate time for officers to make field visits and be in touch with the people.

Rationalization of civil services: In several departments, there is a need to induct more officers for service delivery rather than for supervision. The location of field staff and the number of employees in many departments are skewed. In many cases, more officers are located in the state or district headquarters, when the need is to have officers at the actual implementation/cutting edge levels. An effective system of panchayats can help in combining the functions of several field departments in a single individual, whose work can be supervised by the higher functionaries of the panchayati raj system.

With the changing role of government, the size and scale of civil service should also change. Efforts must be made to identify surplus staff, set up an effective redeployment plan and devise a liberal system for exit. For the time being, recruitment should be limited only to functional posts while vacancies at the secretariat and clerical levels should not be filled.

Lateral entry into the civil service, on a contract basis, can also be considered to enhance mobility. There has to be a conscious effort to prune the size of bureaucracy especially at the clerical levels. Reducing the number of general holidays as recommended by the Fifth Pay Commission should help in better utilization of the existing staff. Officers must be encouraged to join voluntary organizations of repute as well as educational and research institutions during mid-career. Besides reducing the size of the bureaucracy, this will also help in widening the knowledge base of the officers concerned.

 

 

Stability of tenure: A malaise afflicting civil service has been the instability of tenure, leading to reduced involvement and respect for authority. If an incumbent is not sure how long he will stay in a particular position, he will never be able to pay attention to details or master the situation at his work place. While employees such as teachers, village accountants, ANMs etc., need not be transferred at all, except on promotion, there has to be a minimum tenure prescribed for other field level functionaries like district collectors, superintendents of police, project officers etc. For higher ranks in civil service, like secretaries to government, the posting can be contractual for a fixed period and systems evolved to ensure that they are not removed before their period of contract expires without their consent or explanation.

 

 

Performance appraisal: There has to be a regular appraisal of performance of public service providers at every level. As is done for the armed forces, a grading system on a ten-point scale to assess the individual traits and attributes could be introduced as a part of the annual confidential reports. Counselling may be introduced for those employees who repeatedly get adverse remarks. A time-frame should be fixed for writing the annual confidential reports as well as for their acceptance. It may be a good idea to provide a copy of each years completely written annual confidential report to the employee concerned, to enable him to know how his/her performance had been judged and what improvements are required for better performance.

Human resources development: There is a need to periodically update the knowledge of the individuals in charge of public services. Each department should have a specific budget for training staff, both technical and non-technical. Training should not only include exposure of government employees to work methods and technical skills of a particular department, but must also expose them to personality development, stress and time management, communication skills etc. Government employees must be exposed to work in the private sector as well as with NGOs. Training must be made compulsory nÆd a clear relationship established between the career plan of the employee and the training imparted to him.

 

 

Public services reforms for good governance are usually classified into ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ reforms for the purpose of analysis. ‘Inward’ reforms are meant to improve the capacity and commitment of the state to provide social services and perform regulatory and other functions efficiently. Rationalization of departments/activities, restructuring of administrative procedures, laws and regulations and sound personnel policies (recruitment, promotion, career development, emoluments and training) are the major strategies adopted under ‘inward’ reforms. The earlier section of this paper has, in fact, dealt with certain key areas of inward reforms that need to be undertaken for good governance.

‘Outward’ reforms refer to reforms of state in collaboration with the market and civil society to achieve efficiency and effectiveness. The main objective of these reforms is to modify the relationship between the state and society. Central to this change is the operation of a free market with reduced state involvement and greater public participation in economic matters and the transformation of a regulatory state into a facilitating state and a closed economy into a market economy with greater external openness. Privatisation, voluntary action and decentralization of state activities are three dominant strategies that can be suggested in this regard.

Privatisation of government activities is expected to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the state in at least three ways. First, it attracts private capital particularly in the areas of infrastructure, research and development. It not only promotes economic development but also allows the state to allocate more resources for the social sector. Second, privatisation or disinvestment of loss-making public sector undertakings not only cuts staff and expenditure but also makes them competitive by adopting new technologies and management practices. Third, removal of government monopoly by permitting private sector to provide services along with the public sector encourages market competition and thereby improves the quality of services provided.

 

 

Decentralization of state functions has several implications in terms of democratisation, people’s participation and management efficiency. Decentralized institutions of local governance are definitely in a better position than a national government to cater to the day-to-day needs of local people and to use local resources more effectively. They can improve the capacity of the people, particularly the poor, to influence decisions. Institutions like the gram sabha not only make decisions more transparent but also provide a forum for participative democracy as well as accountability of the elected representatives to their electorate. An effective system of decentralization coupled with adequate devolution of financial and administrative powers to the local bodies can lead to better delivery of development benefits as well as governance.

The state resources, especially in the social sector, can be effectively utilized in collaboration with NGOs. Undoubtedly NGOs have distinct advantages in carrying out development programmes over the public service bureaucracy. With simple structures and procedures and close interaction with the people, they can develop a local perspective which can lead to cost effective local solutions. No doubt, it is true that in several parts of the country, NGOs may not exist. But, it is certainly worth channeling public funds through NGOs for social development wherever possible.

 

 

In this context, it also important to mention that with their close interaction with people, voluntary organizations are in a vantage position to play a visionary role. This should not be left to only bureaucrats or politicians. People in public service must make an effort to identify the good NGOs and make use of them in order to achieve their own goals. The government and NGOs are not enemies, they together make the whole.

Similarly, NGOs should not think that every government officer is bad. After all they are part of the same society. The skill lies in identifying good bureaucrats and making use of them since there are people in the bureaucracy who also want to do something. As long as we are clear about what we want – good governance, delivery of benefits, poverty alleviation, empowerment, whatever it is, our objective should be to mutually identify the best on either side and working together for the common cause.

The inward and outward reforms needed for public service will, however, be time consuming. Reducing the size of government, ensuring better orientation and stability of tenure leading to professionalism etc., will not take place within a short span of time. But every country should have a vision of its future and steps initiated in time and the process pursued vigorously to ensure good governance, at least in the near future.

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