Transforming public administration
Every government since 1947, irrespective of political affiliation, has expressed frustration at the inefficiency of India’s vast bureaucracy and the maze of red-tape. Hundreds of committees have provided recommendations but the basic structure of public administration has remained unaltered. Therefore, it is no small matter that the government has embarked on an ambitious effort in recent weeks to reform the administration from its roots. A careful observer would have noticed that some of its key elements have already been introduced.
Just weeks before he passed away in 1964, Prime Minister (PM) Jawaharlal Nehru had commented that his greatest regret had been his failure to change an essentially colonial administration. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed similar sentiments in Parliament in 1966. “What India needs today is a revolution in the administrative system without which no enduring change could be brought about in any field”.
The first Administrative Reform Commission was set up in 1966 under Morarji Desai but it became a victim of bureaucratic sloth. Its report of 20 volumes and 537 recommendations would be placed in Parliament in 1977. Desai had become PM by then, but he was unable to implement the recommendations.
The reforms of 1991 freed many parts of the economy from direct government control. But the functioning of the bureaucracy went through few changes. Therefore, a second Administrative Reform Commission was set up in 2005 under Veerappa Moily. In the preface of a report tabled in 2008, Moily wrote of the bureaucracy, “It believes that its authority and legitimacy is derived not from the mandate of the people but from an immutable corpus of rules that it has prescribed for itself, without any correspondence to the needs and aspirations of the people”.
This brief historical background is important in order to appreciate what is now being attempted. PM Narendra Modi’s government has been experimenting with reforms such as lateral entry and digitisation since 2014. However, the new effort has a totally different level of ambition.
Here are measures introduced in the last six weeks: One, a national platform for recruitment. Almost all discussion around government recruitment tends to focus on that of the higher bureaucracy through Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examinations. However, this thin layer of gazetted officers accounts for a tiny fraction of the civil service. The rest of the recruitment is done through a bewildering network of agencies and examinations. The lack of transparency not only makes it difficult for candidates but has led frequently to allegations of manipulation. The government, therefore, has announced the establishment of a National Recruitment Agency that will conduct a Common Eligibility Test across the country. For now, it will be a standardised first-level filter that will enable candidates to take things forward for final selection. The scores will be shared, so state governments, public sector and even private sector can use them as they deem fit.
Two, compulsory retirement to remove the unfit. The health of any organisation is dependent on systematically weeding out deadwood. Unfortunately, entry into the Indian civil service is seen as a ticket to guaranteed employment till retirement. Interestingly, service rules have long included provisions that allow for civil servants to be compulsorily retired after he/she has completed 30 years of service and crossed the age of 50 (or 55 even if less than 30 years in service). This can be done under the Fundamental Rule 56(j)/(l) and Rule 48 of CCS (Pension) Rules. Around 320 senior officers have already been retired through this route since 2014, but the government reissued the guidelines on August 28 along with supporting Supreme Court judgments. It also provided basic criteria and procedures for using these provisions to remove officials “whose integrity is doubtful” or “found to be ineffective”.
Three, rationalisation of autonomous bodies. The central government alone has hundreds of autonomous bodies — think-tanks, industry bodies, advisory boards and so on. These entities have a role in the delivery of public services but, inevitably, there is also a large amount of duplication and redundancy. It is rare that a government body, once established, will be wound up. For the first time, the central government is carrying out a comprehensive initiative to review the functioning of these institutions. In August, the ministry of textiles alone abolished the All India Handicrafts Board, Cotton Advisory Board, Jute Advisory Board, and the All India Handloom Board. Their duties have been transferred to other existing bodies for better delivery. Other ministries are also carrying out similar exercises.
Four, taxpayers charter and faceless assessment. An important aspect of administrative reform is to improve the interface with the citizen. The tax department is an obvious place to start. In August, the PM announced a Taxpayers Charter that clearly lays out 14 rights for the taxpayer.
The announcement of the Charter accompanied a shift to a system of faceless assessment where cases are to be assigned by an automated system. Together, it is hoped that the measures will significantly reduce persistent complaints of harassment and rent-seeking.
The overall direction of the reform effort should be clear — to improve the inflow/outflow of personnel, rationalise processes, weed out redundant bodies and upgrade the interface with the citizen. The momentum is only going to accelerate.