Look beyond rules to reform the bureaucracy
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rightly characterised India’s bureaucracy as a 19th century administration struggling to tackle 21st century challenges. But building a 21st century bureaucracy requires changing the frame of the current debate on reforms to move beyond rules and procedures to focus instead on institutionalising a new culture of trust and deliberation
Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) mooted a proposal aimed at reforming the evaluation and recruitment process in the civil services by introducing a new service and cadre-allocation system linked to performance in the foundation course in addition to scores received in the civil service examination.
The proposal has sparked a flurry of commentary on the merits of recruitment and entry-level training in the civil services and in the process reignited a much-needed public debate on bureaucratic reforms. Media commentary suggests a near consensus that the proposal, in its current form, is riddled with problems. Concerns range from legal challenges to potential negative impact on the foundation course and, crucially, the risk of introducing subjectivity and bias in an otherwise objective and rigorous selection process.
Regardless of the questionable merits of the proposal, the fact that it has brought the issue of bureaucratic reforms back into the headlines is itself a valuable contribution. But the parameters of the current debate highlight a critical limitation in the current framework for reforms. Discussion on reforms inevitably turns to a standard set of prescriptions — changing recruitment processes, improved performance management, fixing tenure and strengthening capacity through lateral entry — that together seek to reform the bureaucracy by tinkering with formal rules and incentive systems. Crucial as these might be, they are only part of the story. The debate on reforms rarely focuses on the bureaucracy as a social organisation — the norms and culture it is embedded in and the professional identities and notions of performance that this fosters. Ultimately, bureaucratic norms shape the way rules and procedures are interpreted and implemented. Any rule-based reforms will only yield results when they are embedded in an effort that challenges underlying norms.
In an insightful account, political scientist Akshay Mangla highlights the centrality of bureaucratic norms and culture in shaping bureaucratic behaviour and notions of job performance. Mangla makes an important distinction between bureaucratic cultures embedded in “deliberative” vs “legalistic” norms. Deliberative systems encourage problem solving even if it means bending rules. The collective pursuit of policy goals shapes notions of performance. Legalistic bureaucracies promote a culture of strict adherence to rules, hierarchies and procedures, often at the cost of local needs. Performance is shaped by adherence to rules rather than policy goals and pursuit of public service.
Arguably, legalistic norms persist through much of our bureaucratic system. Mangla’s work highlights some state variation, notably Himachal Pradesh, which operates on deliberative norms and has seen gains in service delivery. But these are exceptions. In fact, the current debate on the proposed reform is symptomatic of a legalistic culture, which, with its focus on rules, has reduced complex notions of performance into procedural indicators like exam scores. True to character, rather than debate the relationship between exam scores and quality, the focus is on which scores are a better marker of quality.
A rarely debated but critical aspect of bureaucratic norms is the role of trust. Public commentary on bureaucracy has long focused on the trust deficit between citizens and the (non-performing) bureaucracy. Less discussed is the culture of distrust within the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy’s penchant for paper work and centralised decision-making is an illustration of this distrust. Ethnographies of the Indian bureaucracy have traced the roots of this culture of distrust to the dynamics of colonial rule and associated need to control local bureaucrats. Paper — files, written procedures, records — emerged as the primary instrument through which control was exercised. These instruments of control have not only continued in to the present but have been further entrenched, serving to create a legalistic system of accountability linked to rules, paper and procedures rather than the achievement of public service goals.
This culture of distrust has legitimised the exercise of coercive power within the bureaucratic hierarchy in ways that severely undermine the sense of professional worth of officials, particularly at lower levels of the bureaucratic chain, resulting in demotivation and apathy. In my own research on local bureaucracy, I have frequently heard frontline officials describe themselves as no more than powerless cogs in the wheel. This is ironic, given that government jobs are sought after precisely to access and exercise state power. Importantly, my research shows that subtle shifts in the exercise of power — when the district magistrates adopt a problem-solving, mentoring approach rather than a hierarchical one toward their subordinates, for instance — can serve to empower officers and build professional identities around service delivery goals.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has rightly characterised India’s bureaucracy as a 19th century administration struggling to tackle 21st century challenges. But building a 21st century bureaucracy requires changing the frame of the current debate on reforms to move beyond rules and procedures to focus instead on institutionalising a new culture of trust and deliberation and building a sense of professional identity. By focusing on tinkering with rules, Modi is losing an important opportunity to do just this.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal