Administrative reforms not possible without support from the top
In his last year, in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru was asked what he considered to be his biggest failure. He ruefully replied, “ I could not change the administration, it is still a colonial administration.”
Nehru brought Professor John Appleby to study the administration. Appleby found the system largely functional, although he was intrigued by the preference of higher ranked officers to coordinate, rather than control and administer, through “an excess of cross- references and conferences antecedent to action, and delaying of action, responsibilities nominally lodged elsewhere”. Activity, rather than result oriented action, still continues to pervade large parts of administration.
The problem lies with the system, not with the individuals manning the system. Public administration is a far cry from corporate management. Corporate management has a focused goal, the profitability of the company. Public administration has many goals, and every time a government changes, the goals change, priorities change. Corporate managers report to a single management structure and are subject to far fewer oversight mechanisms. Public administration has to contend with multiple forces, both below and above, and superiors not always accustomed to governance.The fact that the present Council of Ministers contains at least three ministers with hard core civil services background, that the prime minister’s office is manned largely by civil servants, is indication enough of recognition of their capability.
Various attempts have been made over the years to reform administration. Two Administrative Reforms Commissions have made hundreds of recommendations. A number of committees, task forces and the like have made their own contributions.There have been experiments,too, most of which have flourished over short periods of time and then faded away. We have experimented with performance budgeting, zero-based budgeting, the desk officer system , lateral entry of distinguished persons from outside at high levels in governance, different kinds of performance appraisal systems, new training methods, merging and de-merging departments, moving forward briskly on introduction of digital governance at times and not so briskly at other times, and introducing a quality control system called Sevottam and then letting it slide. All in all, a medley of administrative changes have been tried that left no lasting impact.
The experiment with “results framework documents” a few years ago was an attempt to create system reform by laying down objectives, assigning weights, developing a scoring system and enabling each entity in the governance system to assess its own performance. The system did gain currency for some time, but floundered and collapsed without political support. Indeed, the sine qua non for any system change is support from the top on a sustained basis. It was Margaret Thatcher who drove administrative reform in the United Kingdom with a series of unpopular measures, leading even to a civil services strike in 1981. The financial management initiative was introduced, which created departmental cost centres and efficiency scrutiny of departments. In next steps set of reforms, policy making was separated from delivery of services with ministries laying down policies and field agencies executing them. “New public management” thus evolved, metamorphosing later into “new public governance” and further transforming itself with the growth of the digital world. Australia and New Zealand took the initiative forward, including such elements as appointment of permanent heads of civil service on contract with a high degree of autonomy but bound by a performance agreement.
The basic elements of all these new systems were similar: political will and authority driving the changes, separation of policy from implementation, clearly defining expected results, performance agreements to achieve these results, reduction of the size of the public sector, incentives to support performance and, above all, control and monitoring from the top.
Nearer home, Singapore first, and then Malaysia, devoted a great deal of attention to systemic changes in administration. In Malaysia, the modified budgeting system introduced in the 1980s put in place a system of performance agreements between the Treasury and departments and statutory bodies, linking inputs to results. Later, an organisation with the acronym, Pemandu (Performance Management and Delivery Unit), came into being, which created a detailed results programme linked to overarching national priorities. The Pemandu system was lauded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and an agreement was signed to introduce it in India through the NITI Aayog.
We have a new government and new opportunities. We have many things to do in administration: linking inputs to outputs, evolving strong monitoring systems, building a system of incentives and penalties, integrating career progression at higher levels with performance over the years, digitising service delivery, reorienting our financial systems, the list is endless.Instead of working in bits and pieces through commissions, committees and reports, we need to mainstream the process of administrative reform through a permanent, empowered Good Governance Authority, headed by the Prime Minister himself and serviced by the NITI Aayog or the Department of Administrative Reforms. Let the next five years be a period of sustained and substantial administrative transformation, which will create a strong underpinning for economic growth and inclusiveness.
(This is the first in a series of articles on India’s priorities as we head towards the 75 years of Independence)
KM Chandrasekhar is a former cabinet secretary of the government of India
The views expressed are personal