I have long been a champion of people within government—both bureaucrats and politicians—almost to a fault. My views have been shaped by years of deep engagement with “the system”, during which time I have learnt first-hand about the enormous constraints that they work under. I have come to the conclusion that the inability of government to deliver on most public good issues is driven substantially by institutional constraints and not individual competencies—if we were in the same place, I doubt that our record would be substantially different from theirs.
Most people are exasperated by my soft views, given the visible examples of poor government functioning. They say: “How can you excuse these people for the poor quality of our roads or the terrible public schooling system? These are not rocket science challenges! There is no excuse for poor delivery. The problem is that these people don’t care.”
This frustration is understandable. But there are many reasons why even well-intentioned people within government find themselves trapped in ineptitude. These challenges exist everywhere: from what seem like mundane issues such as roads, to increasingly complex issues such as urban planning, mass transport, and so on. Of course, the more contentious problems such as special economic zones, labour reform or water pricing have less to do with implementation, and more with policy itself, because we still haven’t got consensus on these subjects;?these will need to be resolved only through political processes.
These were my own early sentiments as I began the journey of working with government—the appreciation of the constraints came over time. But my experiences with bureaucrats have been varied, and many of these have been deeply frustrating. So, my sympathy doesn't extend to all babus. I have therefore devised a quick checklist, what I call the “three-filter test”. My support is for the minority of bureaucrats who pass this test. Each filter is stated in the form of a question, and can be applied to any public issue that government is responsible for. The questions are as follows:
Filter 1: Are you willing to admit that there is a problem?
Filter 2: Are you willing to admit that you don’t have the answer to the problem?
Filter 3: Are you willing to work in an egalitarian manner with people/institutions outside the system to solve the problem?
Of course, the three-filter test is itself only applicable to those bureaucrats who haven’t become cynical or corrupt, two of the most corrosive side effects of working within government for extended periods. The honest, idealistic babu is a minority within the system. The sad part is that—of these honest officers—those who pass all three filters is a small fraction.
Alcoholics Anonymous says that the first step to recovery is acknowledgement. The best bureaucrats are those who are able to honestly answer “yes” to all the three questions, and then engage in meaningful solutions. This doesn’t mean that solutions will come easily, but at least the foundation for sustained, constructive engagement would be laid.
Unfortunately, most bureaucrats fail to pass at least one of the three filters. Many are not even willing to admit that there is a problem. Even if they acknowledge this, some would genuinely believe that they have the answers. Or, if they are willing to accept the first two filters, they wouldn’t be willing to reach out to others, especially those outside the system.
The reality is that the three-filter test is becoming increasingly important. As our world gets more complex, the challenges being faced by our governments are also increasing. The general management skills that a bureaucrat acquires—shaped substantially by the God-like experience of being DC in the early phase of their careers —simply doesn’t equip them to deal with the technically complex and interdisciplinary nature of today’s public challenges.
If only our bureaucrats could open their minds, and think beyond the steel frame and antiquated silos of the past, they will be astonished to discover the wealth of ideas and energy that they can harness. As well as the goodwill and sympathy that they can garner. This would in turn modify their mindset about their work—rather than feeling like martyrs, toiling away in unappreciated isolation, they will begin to feel the burden of their work lifting. The crust of cynicism will erode, the original idealism with which they joined public service could return. The arrogance of denial will give way to the humility of partnerships. After all, concern for the country is not a fiefdom.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org