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In (partial) defence of the IAS

By Mukul Sanwal
June 15, 2015 12:30 IST
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Administration is an evolving process, requiring the civil service to constantly re-invent itself to meet new challenges. The administration must become accountable to the law of the land and to the people, says Mukul Sanwal.

There are four types of comments on the civil services. Some politicians are openly contemptuous of a lack of commitment to their policies on the part of civil servants.

Retired officers are nostalgic about the 'good times' of the past and concerned about latter-day relations with the political executive.

Analysts generally take a descriptive approach documenting institutional evolution with a focus on implementation failures rather than how policy is made.

Then there are those, like this author, for whom the underlying issue is the changing role of the IAS with respect to governance.

The Indian Civil Service, not the army, constituted the "steel frame" of the Empire, and the primary task of the district magistrate was to secure the public interest.

A provision was made in the Criminal Procedure Code, Section 144, providing for overriding powers to give any direction to persons in the district in the public interest.

This extended to institutions of the central government. For example, any resolution of the Cantonment Board could be stayed in the public interest and referred to the central government.

Similarly, under the Railways Act traffic could be restored after an accident only after the DM concluded relief work. The DM also had superintendence over the police and powers of conservator under the Forest Act in community forests.

The Police Commission of 1902 records that the inspector general of police was equivalent in rank to the DM. A small group of civil servants were the 'guardians' because that is where the buck stopped.

The situation is different now, as it should be, in a democracy seeking rapid economic and social change with the pivotal role of the DM replaced by dual leadership of a department by the minister and the secretary, making the relation between them of crucial importance.

However, even after 65 years the roles of the political executive and the permanent executive have not been clarified. Defining the 'competent authority' is a key issue now before the courts in the coal scam.

The prime minister has rightly focused on transforming an agrarian economy into an industrial, urban and knowledge economy which is expected to be at 10 times the speed and 100 times the scale of what happened during the industrial revolution in Britain.

China did this over a 20-year period of continuous and rapid growth in an authoritarian set-up. We will have to chart a very different course.

Administration is an evolving process, responding to the transformation of a diverse country and requiring the civil service to constantly re-invent itself to meet new challenges.

First, positive steps are needed for the discharge of statutory responsibilities and duties of the administration so that it becomes accountable to the law of the land and to the people.

Second, the civil service needs to deliver better service through a digital platform where citizens can access all services; a system that is more trusting of citizens can deliver better service.

Third, leadership has to be devoid of management jargon and focus on stating views with clarity, inspiring others and moving away from managing departments to building skills to steer systems that overcome fragmentation.

The government is being challenged to do more by the public themselves, and they do not distinguish between the political and permanent executive.

The core of this issue was examined by the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) in 2009. It stressed the need to prepare a Civil Service Act. The government agreed with the recommendation and decided on a Civil Services Performance Standard and Accountability Bill.

The proposed Act is to include (i) a vision for civil services, (ii) a code of ethics for civil servants, (iii) principles for civil services management, (iv) a framework for performance management for civil services, (v) civil services management -- organisation, structure and functions, and (vi) an implementation mechanism for the Act.

The government also decided the state governments would be advised to take similar action after the proposed Act is passed by the central government. This exercise is still on-going.

The ARC has also examined the relations between the political executive and civil servants, and pointed out that "there is need to safeguard the political neutrality and impartiality of civil services, and the onus for this lies equally on the political executive and the civil services", and suggested that this aspect should be included in the code of ethics for ministers as well as the code of conduct for public servants.

The Commission has also recommended that "abuse of authority unduly favouring or harming someone" and "obstruction of justice" should be classified as an offence, and this recommendation has not been accepted by government.

Another issue that has yet to be adequately addressed is the training of senior IAS officers for their role in policy development, because relations with the political executive are considered a sensitive matter.

Policy development often starts with an ideology or an insight that the political executive is advancing. The questions the bureaucrat then has to ask are: 'how good are these insights?' and 'what does the ideology tell us, and what does it not tell us, about a sound policy?'

Successful governments around the world have a clear understanding of the importance of appropriate evidence. It requires a comparative understanding of how policy can make a difference as well as how to evaluate the many different forms of evidence available.

Routine work is declining and knowledge-based work is increasing, for both ministers and secretaries.

The buck now stops with the minister. The prime minister should review their performance against three elements -- setting direction, engaging people and getting results.

The secretaries must also provide their objectives for review. New systems are needed, and here the IAS has not done enough; but there is no option to a civil service based on merit.

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