Bureaucracy has had it too easy

The Hindu Businessline, April 14, 2016

By Pradeep S. Mehta

Only now are they in the line of fire. Some lateral thinking is required to reform the administration

This seems to be a season of some good news as far as administrative reforms for economic growth is concerned. The commerce department at the nudge of the Prime Minister’s Office is considering setting up a large specialised team to negotiate international trade deals. Such a team would comprise specialists drawn from the Indian Trade Service, Indian Foreign Service and trade lawyers.

This line of thinking has been influenced by the fact that on such issues, we are always short on government expertise compared to other countries, while the number of international trade deals continues to rise.

On the home front too, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently set up a task force to recommend more efficient deployment of bureaucrats to priority schemes and do away with the practice of sinecures.

These and other steps such as asking secretaries to attend to a set of grievances on a weekly basis clearly signals the Prime Minister’s resolve to usher in good governance which would indisputably involve elements such as responsiveness, transparency, accountability and predictability, amongst others.

Combined efforts
These elements do not fructify in isolation. They require sustained and seamless coordination amongst sections of society, industry and the government, thus necessitating the need for efficient bureaucratic machinery comprising capable and responsive public servants.

The importance of such a bureaucracy assumes special significance in a country such as India as it is largely still characterised as an apathetic state despite the Prime Minister’s clarion call of “Maximum Governance and Minimum Government”.

In order to get an efficient, proactive and a responsive bureaucracy, a number of factors need to be considered. For instance, it will serve us well to understand administrative norms that bureaucrats in different States are socialised into. A recent study by Akshay Mangla, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, reinforces this point.

His research establishes that different bureaucratic cultures are a significant cause for significantly different primary education outcomes in the socially comparable hilly States of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Another point that this study reinforces is that bureaucracies do not operate in a political vacuum. Public institutions evolve in response to how political leadership conducts itself. This perhaps explains why certain bureaucrats perform better under an outcome and performance oriented political leadership compared to others. Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, and Modi are both examples of leaders who have turned around things at the State and Central level using largely the same administrative machinery.

They brought in some changes at the helm to get the subordinate staff to deliver outcomes. They have also inspired other political leaders to follow suit.

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