How to strengthen India’s frontline bureaucracy
A concerted effort will need to be made for building institutional spaces that break down hierarchies and encourage participation across the political and bureaucratic hierarchy. The PM certainly has the rhetorical skills to initiate this change. What’s missing is the will and vision.Updated: Oct 11, 2018 12:37 IST
In what is very likely a first, earlier in September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi organised a samvad via videoconference with key frontline functionaries — Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), anganwadi and auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) workers — responsible for delivering health and nutrition services. Taken on its own, this samvad was undoubtedly a pre-election, political strategy: direct, one-on-one interactions aimed at establishing a personnel connect, the hallmark of the prime minister’s political style topped up with a much-needed but carefully timed “Diwali bonanza”: a promise of significant increases in wages and perks.
The obvious political overtones aside, this interaction must also be studied for the potential it holds as a strategy to strengthen India’s much maligned frontline bureaucracy. The language adopted by the PM during the samvad — motivating workers by praising them for their work, reminding them of the critical role they play in fulfilling national goals, walking them through governments’ new nutrition plans, asking workers to share their experiences, challenges and offer suggestions and responding to workers by name — was smart politics. But, it also marks perhaps the first time that any political leader, certainly a PM, has sought to talk to frontline functionaries as professionals, on their own terms, at this large scale. For those interested in administrative reforms, there is an intriguing strategy here, one that merits debate.
India’s frontline bureaucracy is infamous for its lack of accountability. This is a workforce known for absenteeism, corruption, and apathy. The debate and basket of solutions have largely focused on disciplining bureaucrats through tighter monitoring such that rules are followed and discretionary behaviour curbed. Instruments for disciplining range from tight monitoring using new technology tools such as biometric attendance and management information systems aimed at improved monitoring (these are particularly favoured by the Modi government) to inviting citizens to directly demand accountability at the frontlines using methods like social audits.
These approaches reflect one crucial gap in how accountability is understood and sought. In his work on public sector accountability, economist Lant Pritchett makes an important distinction between two dimensions of accountability: “account” based and “accounting” based accountability. An account is the narrative, the identity individuals construct about their professional lives on the basis of which actions are justified to those from whom approval is sought. This account is constructed and shaped by the accepted norms within a professional community. Accounting, on the other hand, is about rules, procedures and compliance. In other words, disciplining the workforce.
Accountability in public sector institutions in Pritchett’s framing is fundamentally about the account. Institutions function when the account of the individuals that people them align with the goals of the institution.
This is precisely the accountability challenge that India needs to confront head on. The account of our frontline bureaucracy is shaped by two factors. First, the well-known attraction of government jobs as a source of mobility and power rather than the achievement of professional goals. This is the primary driver of the account of frontline actors. But this account is complicated by the lived experience of being a bureaucrat in a deeply rigid and hierarchical organisation. Rather than harness a professional identity, within the constraints of the dynamic set by the status of government jobs, by building a sense of professional worth around the goal of teaching, improved health care for instance, the hierarchies of the bureaucracy privilege rule following and paper compliance reducing the idea of performance to responsiveness to rules and orders rather than service delivery goals.
In this context accountability sought through accounting will at best ensure on-paper compliance to rules — ensuring anganwadi workers fill their 18 registers, for instance, but will never enable the achievement of service delivery goals like improving nutrition.
It is against this backdrop that the Prime Minister’s samvad gains significance. Carefully crafted interactions like this could serve to fundamentally alter the “account” by building a professional identity and instilling a sense of pride in the job officials perform alongside the status they acquire as government officers. But for this to take root, a concerted effort will need to be made for building institutional spaces that break down hierarchies and encourage participation across the political and bureaucratic hierarchy. The PM certainly has the rhetorical skills to initiate this change. What’s missing is the will and vision.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal