Jonathan Slater, a former permanent secretary to the Department of Education in England, once said there was a need to fix Whitehall’s broken political machine. He was referring to civil servants, the permanent establishment of government, and claimed they were losing their shine in shaping public policy.
India, whose political machine – administered by civil servants and controlled and overseen by political leaders – is growing, finds itself in a similar position. An increase in the size of public services has meant decision-making has slowed and delivery has improved less rapidly than it should. Utilities must be the correct size to prevent rusting.
However, during the pandemic, civil servants and political leaders, perhaps a select few, have shown the desired resilience, but this is not true all the time.
As repositories of historical data, information and knowledge, officials are expected to know the rules and regulations to ensure their implementation in letter and spirit. Senior civil servants are all the more responsible for distinguishing good from evil and for making what is good prevail.
Politicians bring politics into governance. There shouldn’t be a problem with that because it’s implicit in a democratic regime. Civil servants assist them in the performance of their duties. They examine data and evidence on the political ambitions of politicians, although their advice is not always accepted.
These political ambitions can, of course, only be pursued within the constitutional and legislative framework. Political leaders can change laws if they don’t suit their purposes, but they can’t seek or insist on a solution that violates them. Officials have the right to resist or refuse to pursue such a solution. However, violations committed or attempted by officials must be sanctioned, especially if they are voluntary.
It is a common perception that a politician cannot violate the rule of law if officials stick to it and stay within the framework. Violations are not uncommon, however. Civil servants and politicians cannot escape responsibility by blaming each other. They have to look for reasons and look for plausible solutions.
Flawed punishment and reward system
In his recent article, Dr Subbarao, a retired senior officer of the IAS, said that one of the reasons for the decline of the civil service was the faulty punishment and reward system. It’s not false. There are no penalties for non-performance and performers are sidelined or ignored. Incentives for high performers are not precisely defined and are misaligned. Civil service fixers, caressing each other, rise through the ranks taking advantage of discretionary selections for “creamy” assignments. They bend or even break the rules to meet the aspirations of their providers, throwing away neutrality, which should otherwise be the cornerstone of all public servants. Well-meaning public servants are unmotivated, making them risk averse and indecisive. Of course, there are exceptions.
Among many other reasons, one of the most common factors is the lack of unity and collectivism in decision-making among officials. They are reluctant to speak out for or against the wrongs of their colleagues, when the preferred path should be to make amends to save the wrongs observed, at least for the future. Such occasions are rare, while selective personal biases and vested interests can be traced in abundance. The political cadres broadly follow similar lines, with little, if any, change from the past, regardless of their party affiliations. Some minor variations are sometimes attempted, perhaps to improve the longevity of political governments.
A discouraging feature of the punishment and reward system is that it does not provide for corrections and improvements. The truth remains hidden, but unsubstantiated lies or facts persist unquestioned, causing unnoticed long-term damage. The system should encourage truth to make amends and promote forgiveness to save the future. However, if that had happened, it wouldn’t have been a loot system.
The success of public servants is limited by the actions of political leaders. Normally, they have to resist political vicissitudes and pressures. Rules and regulations should, whenever necessary, empower them to do so. However, the political ambitions of politicians rise on unsustainable premises, and the resilience and decision-making quality of declining officials make the loot system more entrenched.
The political cunning in decline
Senior officials are expected to be politically more astute in crafting advice and proposals that match political ambitions but within the framework of laws. Over the years, these traits have faded. The merit and talent of the public service are proving too inadequate in the face of convoluted policies and the expansion of knowledge, information and technology. As a result, the fundamental issues of food, education, health and livelihoods are becoming increasingly difficult and of concern.
The resilience of public services should be strengthened and supported through appropriate training and necessary modifications to existing systems of rewards and sanctions. Such an effort should aim to increase the professionalism of the services. Otherwise, ambitious policies based on unsustainable premises will become more pronounced. It can even become radical with avoidable socio-economic upheavals. The political machine of the government, composed of both civil servants and political cadres as complementary two wheels for its successful movement, should be reinvigorated to prevent such a situation and facilitate the execution of the task within the statutory framework with a sense of responsibility. shared.
(The author is a retired IAS officer from Punjab. Opinions expressed are personal.)