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Last month, India’s bureaucracy came under the spotlight when Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned the need for civil servants in areas better left to the private sector. Familiar concerns about bureaucratic inefficiency returned to the fore. But coming amidst a pandemic that has demanded unprecedented collaboration between the private and the public sectors, one question got less attention: based on their diverse experiences in the field and in policy positions, what role do bureaucrats think the private sector, civil society and international organizations have played during the pandemic response?

A survey we held last year shows striking disregard for the private sector among top-tier bureaucrats in India, even as they seemed positive about other stakeholders such as nonprofits and international organizations. The Centre for Policy Research survey, held in August-September 2020, involved over 500 officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). These officers were asked their views on, among other things, the role of civil society stakeholders and the private sector in the pandemic response across states.


Overall, three of every five officers we surveyed considered non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society as critical partners in the pandemic response. Another 14% acknowledged their positive contributions, but also noted the increased regulatory burden on the government. Only 13% of the officers expressed the view that NGOs and civil society had largely focused on increasing their own presence and visibility.


The most resourced states were the least likely to consider NGOs and civil society as critical partners, which possibly shows they are less dependent on them for meeting gaps in state capacity. On the contrary, bureaucrats in less developed states were the most likely to hold a positive view about civil society groups.

As we move towards states with more development, bureaucrats also become more likely to express concern about NGOs adding to the state’s regulatory burden. Almost 24% of the officers in “frontrunner states" believe so, against 10% in “aspirant states". This classification of states is based on tiers devised by the NITI Aayog using scores on sustainable development goals as in 2018.

IAS officers had mixed feelings about international organizations—around 60% responded positively, suggesting that the expertise of such organizations was invaluable (32%) or that they enabled global coordination (28%). However, the rest (40%) did not believe such organizations had added any value in the pandemic response. Here, too, officers from the least resourced states showed much greater support for the expertise and resources made available by these organizations.


Only 11% of officers agreed that the private sector had gone out of its way to supply essential services, a clear contrast to the strong positive view on the role of NGOs and even international organizations. Another 36% acknowledged that private sector contributions were valuable but had increased the government’s regulatory burden.

The majority of officers held a negative view of the private sector—30% said the sector had made no significant impact at all, and nearly a quarter said it had capitalized on the crisis to further its own interests.

Officers in more developed states were most positive about the private sector, with over half (58%) acknowledging its positive contribution, even if it had led to increased regulatory burden. Officers in these states were much less likely to accuse the private sector of using the pandemic to further its own interests. Older and younger cohorts of officers, in both field and policy-level positions, did not show significant differences in their views.


These findings provide important insights for thinking about the state’s capacity for effective collaboration. First, the differences in responses based on states’ development shows that civil society and international organizations are likely to be substituting for weak state capacity in a number of states in India. The positive response of officers from less resourced states may show a healthy environment of collaboration, but it also indicates serious gaps in building basic state capacities for service delivery and implementation.

Second, as states develop more capacity, their relationship with stakeholders seems to shift from substitution and/or antagonism towards one where shaping and maintaining ecosystems takes precedence.

Learnings from across the world show that far-sighted public investment and good regulation can shape markets, spur private sector innovation, and generate and protect public value. In India, at a moment when the bureaucracy and the private sector are being pitted against each other as substitutes, insights emerging from this survey of public administrators offers a more positive and promising way forward.

The authors are with the State Capacity Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research. They recently released a report titled ‘The Pandemic and Public Administration: A Survey of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Officers.’

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