Don’t tweak; revamp govt ecosystem

  • KR Lakhanpal, chandigarh
  • Updated: Aug 19, 2014 13:59 IST

As a follow-up to its pre-election motto, “Minimum government, Maximum governance”, the Narendra Modi government recently amended the All India Service (Conduct) Rules, 1968, to incorporate 19-point guidelines for officers belonging to these services, which, inter alia, mandates them to:

Declare conflict of interest between public duty and private interest
Not misuse their office for pecuniary benefit for themselves, their family or friends
Be responsible and courteous to the public, especially to weaker sections
Maintain high standards of honesty and integrity
Maintain accountability and transparency
Refrain from doing anything which is or may be contrary to any law, rules, regulations and established practices
Maintain discipline in the discharge of their duties and be liable to implement the lawful orders duly conveyed to them
Maintain confidentiality in the performance of their public duties
Act firmly and impartially
Make choices, recommendations and take decisions on merit alone
Take decisions in public interest and use or cause to use public resources efficiently, effectively and economically

There is nothing new in these amendments, except that the existing generic provisions have been pointedly stressed and made a part of the conduct rules. Such principles are more relevant to the Civil Services Values and a Code of Conduct for civil servants, rather than the humdrum conduct rules. This may achieve little positive result in promoting good governance and, on the negative side, may make officers even more diffident in taking decisions. Moreover, the nub of the problem is not the lack of clarity in the provisions of rules, but an outdated, skewed and flawed ecosystem of the government.

In the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy that we have followed, the existence of independent, secure and impartial civil services, both at the Centre and in the states, is an absolute must for enforcing the rule of law. As the political executive is drawn from the members of Parliament and that of the state legislatures, there is bound to be tension between them and the permanent executive, comprising the civil services. Such tension can be positively harnessed into an atmosphere of mutual respect and a healthy system of checks and balances or fester into a negative conflict zone between the two wings of the government. Currently, this relationship is marked by mutual mistrust, collision or collusion, to the detriment of the public good.

Civil services law

At present, there is no comprehensive civil services law, defining the role of civil servants, governing their relationship with the political executive and their terms and conditions of service, despite its being mandated by Article 309 of the Constitution. Instead, these matters are governed by myriad outdated rules that can be changed at the whims and will of the political executive. Under the existing scheme, it is the minister who lays down the extent of delegation of functions to different levels in a ministry or a department. This is not informed by the sound principle that policy-making and strategic decisions, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation should be the concerns of the government and implementation should be delegated to the field formations.

Rather, the field has become highly skewed because of usurpation by the political executive, which is busy rowing, rather than steering the ship of the state.

Admn Reforms panel

It is in this context that the second Administrative Reforms Commission (10th and 15th reports) recommended the enactment of the Civil Services Law, both at the federal and state levels. The proposed law provides for:

Civil Services Values
Code of Ethics
Recruitment and conditions of service
New conditions of appointment in future
Fixation of tenures
Dismissal, removal etc. of civil servants
A performance management system
Constitution of central and state civil services authorities
Functions of the civil services authorities
Creation of executive agencies in the government in mission mode

The government is yet to examine these recommendations and roll out the process of their implementation. While doing so, some important aspects of India’s political evolution since Independence as brought out by Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania in a recent write-up in the Times of India, must be borne in mind. These are as follows:

“The institutionalisation of the periodic transfer of power, peacefully and predictably, recently evident in the NDA’s victory earlier this year. But the journey has been much rockier with regard to another critical question: to direct that power for the broader public good.”

“Size and social legitimacy undoubtedly have built state ‘strength’ – the negative power of the Indian state to thwart is certainly manifest. But positive power – to do something, to execute programmes and provide basic public goods that are the bread and butter of states’ responsibility to its citizens – is still a far cry.”

Any good governance framework has to be a continuous endeavour to overcome these cardinal weaknesses of the Indian state. That is why tweaking rules, or even a mint — fresh Civil Services Law, howsoever important, may not be sufficient to usher into a new dawn. At the same time, misaligned incentives and a craven bureaucratic-political nexus needs to be effectively curved and better accountability mechanisms need to be put in place. This calls for nothing short of a total revamp, re-invention and reinvigoration of the entire ecosystem of the government.

The writer is a former chief secretary of Punjab. Views expressed are personal

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