Bureaucratic resilience necessary but not enough for governance
Guest Column: In a democratic setup, elected representatives are more aware of the ground realities of life and are thus in a better position to guide the civil servants in framing public policies.
Good governance comes from experience but a lot of that comes from bad governance.
Governments often blame bureaucracy for wrongs attributed to them. It may be correct to evade accountability but not always true. The core function of any government is to deliver transparent and responsive governance that cares for the poor and vulnerable. It should be rule-based and maintain constitutional proprieties in all spheres of life, social, political, and economic. Conflicts in governance emerge when its various actors become self-interested and competitive.
The bureaucratic predominance in governance has existed since time immemorial. Max Weber theorised bureaucratic essentiality in governance. However, many of us believe that good governance is primarily the function of civil servants. Undoubtedly, civil servants represent the permanent establishment and are referred to as the steel frame of the government, but they are not flawless. They may be relatively more resilient owing to their education, information, and even better intellectual understanding, but academic and intellectual excellence, though necessary, is not enough for quality governance. Apart from being distant from ground realities, they do tend to be non-transparent and unresponsive. Many purposely violate rules, and some of them also abdicate their responsibilities and perform poorly for personal gains to which they are not entitled. Many a time, such conduct of bureaucrats allures political executives to governance that is not fully compliant with the law.
Intellectual excellence is not the same as academic excellence. Many of those who had first-rate degrees have proved unworthy of their positions and who had no, or lesser education have risen to the topmost positions with more intellectual and emotional stability. Governments have to respond to rising aspirations, and that requires not only a good understanding of systems, laws, and processes but also a better appreciation of people’s perceptions and needs. Good intellectual minds leading to misuse of systems or social isolation based on caste or class differentiation do not yield unflawed governance that is widely applauded.
Roles and responsibilities
The roles and responsibilities of political executives and civil servants are well defined, though at times there is a thin line distinction. Politicians control the policy domain. Through legislatures, they make the laws and rules, which articulate the functional framework for the civil servants. They also set the goals for the civil servants. The political executives, if so required, can alter the rules based on political ideologies, programmes, or other socio-economic considerations but do not have the choice to allow or put up with their violations.
The spoils system promoted for the benefit of a select few is a blatant attempt to squeeze the governance for personal or political dividends that are otherwise not permitted. Usurping the space allocated to the bureaucracy disturbs the balance of power and harms governance. However, the civil servants should concede the space legitimately provided to the political executives, of course without allowing their actions and interventions to become impermissible interference.
The politicians, when in power, bring politics into government, but all of them are not familiar with the finer nuances of governance. Many are experienced, some learn core governance rather quickly, but several aspirational politicians get carried away by not so appreciable past bureaucratic or political practices. The bureaucracy is more adept in such practices using generous phrases such as natural justice, public interest or purposes, concern for national or internal security, etc., to cajole these not-so-experienced politicians in the governments for actions that are not strictly legitimate.
Ground realities and governance
In a democratic setup, elected representatives are more aware of the ground realities of life and are thus in a better position to guide the civil servants in framing public policies. Such policies should necessarily be evidence-based, and impartial to benefit everyone without any discrimination. However, the bureaucracy examines the real-life evidence that the politicians bring to the government, and often outcomes don’t turn out to be as visualised by the public due to inadequate appreciation of grassroots realities. Over the years, senior bureaucrats gain knowledge and information to fill in such a gap, but that is also becoming increasingly scarce. With lesser experiential learning and knowledge of affected areas or communities, the bureaucracy either circumvents the politicians or envelopes the governance in red tape. As an outcome, affirmative politics and good governance suffer.
Even though intellectually and academically more resilient, the bureaucrats, being distant from battlegrounds, are observed to be less pragmatic and risk averse. Some of them concede to governance based on emotions, religions, casteism, and communism, which should be avoided for any principled decision-making. Some even become victims or partners in perilous politics. If intellectually strong and emotionally stable, civil servants and politicians ponder more on the ethical conduct of government business, fully reflecting upon the socio-economic needs of the common man, this may lay the foundation of political success through good governance.
Trust and expectations
Governance is thus not always driven by intellectual resilience; it requires grassroots understanding and a realistic appreciation of peoples’ aspirations, devoid of any bias. Discrimination based on caste, class, resource endowments, or even elite education should be prevented to ensure governance based on greater equality, equity, and rule-of-law. It should aim to “level up for all” and everyone should have equal opportunities to enjoy life through hard work and honest means. However, politics in our country is struggling to respond to these aspirations of younger generations. For the governments, the challenges are increasing with the commonly experienced decline in the popular trust in traditional politicians and the rising expectations from the bureaucracy. Unless remedied speedily, this may cause long-term damage to our democratic polity. firstname.lastname@example.org
The writer is chief principal secretary to Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh. Views expressed are personal