Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The need for a more professional bureaucracy

Growing governance and development complexities require innovative ideas

Very often, context overshadows content in politics and public discourse. Therefore, it is not surprising that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s call for reforms in the bureaucracy did not attract much popular attention. After top bureaucrats in the Delhi state administration decided to go on mass casual leave to protest the suspension of two of their colleagues, Kejriwal argued in favour of bringing professionals into the government, which will infuse energy and ideas in governance. Certainly, the issue that led to the tussle between the elected government of Delhi and its officers could have been managed better, but there is merit in considering what Kejriwal suggested.

In a separate development, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met top bureaucrats of the central government on New Year’s eve, and asked them to come up with ideas for transformative change in various areas such as governance, education, health and employment generation. It remains to be seen what kind of suggestions they come up with. But since the idea is to make transformative change, the prime minister would do well to look beyond the existing set of civil servants. Transformative change will first require professionalizing the bureaucracy at the top. Good administrators may not always turn out to be good policymakers.

Modi has done well to abolish interviews for appointments at the lower levels of the central government. If state governments also follow this practice, this will help curb corruption in appointments. He should now take the next logical step of introducing much needed change at the top. Increasing complexities in governance and challenges in the area of development require innovative ideas, which the generalist nature of the existing bureaucracy may not be in a position to provide. It will require attracting specialists with technical expertise from outside, along with a revamp of the existing system of governance.

What the government needs to do is to make way for people with technical capabilities who can design policies and programmes, possibly by leveraging technology, and oversee implementation. Aadhaar is a shining example of this approach where Nandan Nilekani converted a big idea into reality, which is now being used to improve service delivery in various areas. Earlier, economists like Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia entered the government from the outside and went on to play an important role in the country’s economic reforms.

To be sure, the need for reforms is not new and the issue has been addressed by a number of committees and commissions in the past. However, not much has changed over the years as the “steel frame" of bureaucracy and the system of governance that India inherited from its colonial ruler have remained fairly intact. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, constituted by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2005, aptly summarized the problem: “The existing governance systems are heavily dependent on rule-based approaches. There is a preoccupation with process, adherence to procedures, conformity with budget provisions and economy of inputs... The success or failure of a scheme is also evaluated on the basis of quantum of resources consumed. As a result, the focus of governance has been more on inputs than on outcomes." This also explains why discussion in public is often focused on allocation and not necessarily on the outcome. Primary education is a good example. While the allocation has increased significantly over the years, learning outcomes have left much to be desired.

Reforms in bureaucracy and governance are relevant not only at the central level, but also at the state level. With increasing decentralization and greater fiscal autonomy, states will need to build capabilities to be able to design and implement programmes in an effective manner. Furthermore, as states compete for investments, it is likely that the ones with a more professional bureaucracy will gain.

Even though the need for change in bureaucracy and governance is well recognized, not much has happened. Since Kejriwal has revived this vital issue, perhaps, the change can also begin from the government in the national capital.

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