The much maligned public servant

Business Line, December 03, 2014
Surveillance of government employees creates a climate of mistrust, which will stifle innovation and affect outcomes

In an effort to enhance accountability within the State, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a new surveillance system to monitor the attendance of public employees. The Biometric Attendance System requires employees to clock their time in and out of the office using fingerprints and a unique attendance identity number that is connected to Aadhaar.

At present, more than 50,000 central employees spread across 150 departments have enrolled in the programme, and their daily comings and goings have been made public on the website: The dominant narrative, put forward by Indian media outlets, suggests that public employees are now on their toes.Still, questions around how surveillance information will get used and what disciplinary actions may follow remain unclear. The long-term goal, presumably, is to disrupt the prevailing culture of apathy and poor work ethic in sarkari offices.

Central to this approach is the view that public employees, like all individuals, are pre-disposed to shirking, exerting minimal effort on the job. The solution entails using hierarchical power to ensure compliance.

It is worth taking a step back to reflect on the underlying ills facing the Indian bureaucracy, and whether public surveillance systems offer a cure.

Not enough

In their book, Working, Shirking and Sabotage, political scientists John Brehm and Scott Gates offer an alternative perspective. They find that top-down rewards and punishments are insufficient. High performance at the workplace stems from bureaucrats’ own commitment to the work at hand, the degree of appreciation and esteem they receive from their peers, and the existence of professional standards. A parallel set of studies on private firms similarly find that an ethos that encourages participation, decision-making and feedback by subordinates improves organisational performance.

India’s Biometric Attendance System draws its inspiration from the first of these models. Control at the top, informed by biometric surveillance data, by that model, can inculcate a culture of high performance among lower echelons of the state. That approach conforms to what I refer to as India’s “legalistic” state. A legalistic state promotes strict adherence to rules and hierarchies. A legalistic model offers several pathways to low motivation among India’s public employees, including a lack of hierarchical oversight and discipline. Read Fullstory>>

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