India has a functioning democracy and several institutions and practices ensure checks and balances and a modicum of governance. And yet, every government feels handicapped in delivering on its promises.
Since the 1980’s, there is really no serious ideological contention, not withstanding a few make-believe arguments and politics of populism to garner votes. Generally, there is a broad agreement on key areas of state intervention to promote growth with equity. Rule of law, education, healthcare, infrastructure, sustainable natural resources development, urban management, social security for the indigent and fight against corruption are the obvious priorities. Despite this impressive political consensus on the goals, no government is able to ensure outcomes. The resultant gulf between promise and fulfilment is at the heart of the volatility in voter behaviour, and the persistent anti-establishment verdicts.
This failure to deliver has direct and serious consequences in terms of sub-par economic growth, persisting poverty, unfulfilled potential, social unrest and political strife. It is true that we cannot put all the blame for this failure on administration alone. The political culture and process of power have a lot to answer for. But administrative failure is as glaring as political shortcomings.
Politicians and civil servants always play the cat and mouse game. The BBC television serial ‘Yes, Minister’ is a classic depiction of this dilemma. The politician is always caught between the slow rate of social and economic pay off resulting from sound policies and the short term political price to pay, especially in poor societies. Competitive populism and adhocism have therefore become the hallmark of governance. And yet, even when the policies are right, the execution is tardy and inefficient, and the politician often receives unjust flak. Politicians and people perceive bureaucracy as wooden, inflexible, inward-looking, and insensitive to outcomes. Bureaucrats lampoon politicians as short-sighted, partisan, power-hungry and unrealistic.
A society needs both politicians and bureaucracy. Negation of politics is the road to tyranny. The only antidote to bad politics is more politics and better politics. And every system needs a meritocratic, professional, competent bureaucracy. Only a bad workman complains against his tools. Obviously we need both political and administrative reforms. One cannot wait for the other. We have to pursue reform in each sector parallelly, even as we recognize that such reforms are necessary, but not sufficient.
Where do we begin administrative reform? There are three broad approaches which need to be pursued with vigour and dispatch. First, we need to decentralize administration both horizontally and vertically. Over-centralization is the chief cause of delay, inefficiency, non-transparency and corruption. Horizontally the procedures need to be streamlined to remove all bottlenecks and delays due to inadequate delegation. Take for instance the case study on universalisation of ICDS scheme. This is a case where the policy is not disputed. And yet there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The Supreme Court gave a direction to expand ICDS on April 29, 2004. A decision was taken by the government to implement it on Dec 29. The scheme was included in the annual budget (2005-06), and the additional financial outlay of Rs 1550 crore was proposed and approved to establish 1.88 lakh more anganwadi centers. Ordinarily, that should be the end of the story, and the scheme should be implemented from April 1. But that is not the way our government works!
There are several more stages – approval of EFC and CCPA (even after Parliament approval), and formal sanction of the Anganwadi centers. But in a complex federal democracy, even this sanction will not mean delivery. The states are then communicated the sanction details and they start their own tedious circuitous process! The whole process could well take until the end of August 2006, or 2007, depending on the state’s quality of governance. All this in a scheme universally acclaimed and fully funded! Clearly, a lot can be done to improve speed without undermining accountability.
Vertically, we need to truly redesign government on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity. Any task which can be performed by a small unit should never be entrusted to a larger unit. Only when economies of scale and technical complexity demand entrustment to the larger tier should it be done. All the financial devolution and personnel transfer should match functional domain determined on this basis. Only then will the citizen see the link between her vote and public good, and monies can be traced to services delivered.
Second, in a modern government, many functions are increasingly complex. Policing, justice delivery, education, healthcare, transportation, land management, infrastructure, urban management – all these are intricate issues which demand domain expertise, high degree of specialization, long experience in the sector, and deep insights. The colonial practice of recruiting an all-purpose generalist service, and entrusting any sector at any time to any civil servant without adequate expertise is both archaic and dysfunctional. Outside South Asia, no nation follows such a practice. We need to ensure a high degree of specialization among civil services. And key positions must be open to the best in the country, both in civil services and outside. The monopoly enjoyed automatically by the premier civil services has led to appalling waste of great human talent. Excellence is no longer fostered, and the public sector is denied the best talent and expertise. We must recognize that the complex challenges of a modern economy and society cannot be faced merely by some intuition and conventional wisdom. We need to open the doors for the finest talent, even as career civil servants must specialize. The barrier between government and the rest of economy and society must be lowered, allowing free movement based on competence and leadership qualities.
Finally, we created a delightfully vague system of accountability. Authority almost never goes with responsibility. As a result, we have only victims of misgovernance, but no villains! Fusion of authority with accountability requires a complete reengineering of public institutions and practices. A system of risks and rewards, strong and independent anti-corruption agencies, innovative measures for direct citizens’ participation and stake-holder empowerment, and complete transparency are vital ingredients of good governance.
We do not exist in a vacuum. Our own experience, best practices in India and abroad, and constant innovations offer us a guide to improving our public service delivery. What we need are fierce determination, unrelenting focus on goals, and the strength to withstand pressure from status quoists.