Public services must improve for better governance
(RAHNUMA) There is a widely held view that the All India Services, which provided the “steel framework” of governance in a democratic India, granting constitutional autonomy to the administration of the state, especially on the front of the police, fail to deliver on their promises due to declining decision-making competence of its officers, their sufficiency stemming from notions of complete job security and inadequate metrics for evaluating their performance.
Selection on the basis of a merit-based examination open to all – regardless of class, creed or region – remains a huge commendation for the civil service and it can also be said that the pride and confidence of their young officers in the early years of service still hold, on the whole.
However, things did not go well as the officers who progressed in the career graph lost their shine and took to serving their general self-interests. The “steel frame” looks rusty today. Yet no other nation has an equivalent of All India Services in terms of offering a career starting at ‘leadership level’ in administering various wings of the country’s government including the management of foreign affairs.
A newcomer to the civil service – after the first years of training – obtains the status of under-secretary of the Indian government. The IAS and IPS are trained by the Center before being assigned to different states in the hope that they would give India – which is a Union of States – a comparable quality of administration and governance with a public vocation, uniformly throughout the country.
The drop in “delivery” mainly concerns these two services which should be at the center of the nation’s attention and concerns.
One of the main causes of the deterioration of these public services is the dominant influence that corrupt leaders in state power wield over the bureaucracy and the police in pursuit of their own interests.
A practice has developed that they rely more on flexible state service staff at the expense of IAS and IPS officers – resulting in the common phenomenon of chief secretaries and directors police generals who seem to be the weakest, not the strongest, point in their careers – unable to improve the system they presided over or champion the cause of lower officers who were upright and firm.
The Center should begin by having a say in the appointment of the state CS and DGP by asking the UPSC to assemble a panel of appropriate officers in consultation with the state government – the Supreme Court had already in 2018 favored this approach. .
This idea should have been more concrete now. Furthermore, since the Personnel Department and the Home Office have the right to monitor the performance of IAS and IPS officers, the legitimacy of the in-service evaluation of these officers for higher responsibilities after 15, 20 and 25 years of service by properly constituted boards of directors, should be firmly established so that underperforming officers receive a decent “handshake” with mandatory retirement.
All of this must be accompanied by a firm assurance from the Center that unjustly harassed IAS and IPS officers will be fully protected through a stronger set of safeguards.
The civil service has suffered due to a complete erosion of participatory oversight by senior managers – attributable to a tendency to evade accountability.
A poor boss-subordinate relationship resulted in low efficiency and productivity. Supervision only makes sense if it is participative in the sense that the senior is available at all times if the person below asks him for advice on the official work.
It goes hand in hand with the freedom to record one’s honest opinion, based on explicit reasoning, on a matter subject to the decision of a higher authority. The elder, of course, has the right to overrule a suggestion from below – again for explained logic.
In bureaucracy, the role of a senior executive has the intrinsic character of “leadership”, which is often lacking these days. One way to reintroduce participatory control into civilian administration is to emulate the management principle followed in the military – where no soldier is punished without his NCO or JCO being held accountable as “commander” and this also applies to higher levels.
In the civil hierarchy, the “higher” level cannot remain totally isolated from a “failure” of the lower civil servant.
In India, one of the major reasons for the decline of public administration is the shrinking position and authority of the District Magistrate-cum-Collector as the anchor of governance. The DM is the state symbol closest to the people and the supreme controller of the functioning of all wings of government in the district.
The image of the nation takes a hit when manholes left uncovered by a careless sewer repairman or a water-filled pit or a borehole left unattended on a construction site result in the death of people. ‘a child, when an old tree at the side of a road is ‘counted’ by the forest authority but not reported when a potential danger suddenly falls, crushing a passer-by below or when an ambulance, although available, is denied to an ordinary citizen admitted to the hospital and in need of an emergency shift.
It is the DM that is supposed to create a deterrent against such serious anti-popular acts by the district officials linked to the public service, but this is today totally absent because of the play of politics even at the local level and of the abdication of young IAS and IPS agents from their basic responsibilities.
The Center cannot leave this issue to the whims of state politicians and must find ways and means to bring governance back to the district.
The DM must be used as an authority to control the corruption of municipal bodies whose flagrant failure due to politicization is a major reason for the downfall of the socio-economic condition of the inhabitants of our cities and towns.
Perhaps the most important of the fundamental strengths of a democracy is effective management of law and order, which in India’s constitutional scheme is an autonomous function of state government.
The functioning of the police apparatus primarily concerned with this is totally left to the States – this leaves much to be desired since very often the Center becomes a helpless spectator to the misuse of the police as a political instrument by the leaders of governments States. .
Police reform is more of a catchphrase and focuses on political ‘interference’, manpower shortages and the need for bigger facilities – with little mention of the role of senior officers in preventing dysfunction chronicle of the police station, the slow computerization of complaints and records, and the need for an internal review of why law-abiding citizens avoid approaching the police.
Policing in India is overly dependent on the police and desperately needs to be transformed into an officer-driven service. The CrPC left by the British speaks only of an “officer of any rank” and not of a “gendarme”.
It would be necessary to move towards the support by the police stations of listed agents assisted by inspectors, SI and ASI with some gendarmes to help in the management of the cell and accompany the investigator in the field.
An armed police section can be deployed in important and sensitive police stations. The pruning of the Gendarmerie, the abolition of the position of circle officer between the SDPO and the improved SHO and the obtaining of an additional SP to take care of two or more sub-divisions for police work are the options to make policing profitable.
Greater investment may be needed in district intelligence units given the police’s growing responsibility for homeland security. The disease of “political interference” can be largely contained if IPS leadership in the state assumes greater professional responsibility for the performance of police stations that provide the police-citizen interface at the ground level.
Following the announcement of the Agnipath program of defense service recruitment at the ‘jawans’ level, some ex-civil servants believe that the replication of this induction model in All India Services could be tried as a cost-effective method of catching up shortages of workforce and at the same time use the severed hands as messengers to raise awareness of the importance of public service in society.
They seem to have missed some fundamental points. Firstly, Agnipath is not a short service commission for officers – it is the recruitment of higher quality “soldiers” who can absorb warfare equipment technology and a skill set that would give them better employability in the back from a brief engagement with the Defense Services.
Public services need the best trained staff who can absorb the burden of managing complex administrative and governance issues. The police in particular must reduce their massive numbers to become an officer-oriented service.
Unlike in the case of the defense forces, the prospects of short-term employment could make those entering the civil service vulnerable to the temptation to make personal gains in the wide variety of administrative spheres that would be available to them.
Instead of a skill set, the person could learn the ‘tricks of the trade’ to use on their return – it would also be difficult to catch the individual for any deliberate wrongdoing during the short period of service.
Defense services are associated with a kind of nobility and pride that is not necessarily a defining characteristic of public administration and political governance everywhere. The two fields are not comparable in terms of recruitment, orientation and accountability – there is no need to mix apples with oranges.
(The author is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Opinions expressed are personal)