Good governance: A call for systemic change

Our laws and rules must reflect the liberalism and dynamism of changing realities on ground.

 |  10-minute read |   20-02-2015
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Governance - a holistic process combined with a structure, determines who takes the important decisions, how such decisions are taken and in what time, who all get to know those decisions, what results are desired out of those decisions, what all it takes to execute such decisions, what results are ultimately achieved out of such decisions and who all are accountable for such decisions and for their outcomes. With rising levels of education, awareness, aspirations and expanding reach of social media and communication technologies, need and demand for governance has grown manifold. Moreover, the complexities and challenges of governance in a fairly large and diverse liberalised globally connected economy have grown significantly too. Understandably so, governance has direct and profound relevance in efficient and effective delivery of welfare programmes and development initiatives.

By nature, governance is dynamic and positive as it continuously aims to achieve the desired results of common good in ever changing realities, irrespective of where it is applied. Therefore, calling governance as good governance does not change its meaning - rather it enhances and reinforces the idea of common good. Good governance is perhaps the single most important factor today in determining the success of government's poverty eradication programs, in maintenance of rule of law, in administering of timely justice, in driving rapid balanced economic growth in a globally connected economy, in promoting level playing field and equity, in facilitating a liberal and compliance-oriented regime for businesses, in building transparency and accountability in governance and so on and so forth.

The moot question is that how does the nation achieve good governance. It is true that strategic vision, strong political will, administrative acumen and decisiveness in the political leadership shall play critical roles in driving this process. However, the tactical planning, organising, implementation, delivery and monitoring on the ground have to be done by the administrative machinery - the governance system. Unless the administrative framework, the structure, the processes and the personnel manning the administrative system are geared towards the needs of the times, governance process either won't yield desired level of results or would remain a non-starter.

Clearly, the existing structural framework of governance continues to suffer from a deep chronic colonial hangover wherein the colonial bureaucratic structure and machinery (called "steel frame") was designed to rule this erstwhile colony and sustain the rule of British masters. Successive governments since independence have continued to feel the dire need for restructuring bureaucracy but have failed to do so. Most of the recommendations of various administrative reform commissions have remained non-starters at best. Absence of political will, lack of consensus, politician-bureaucrat nexus, license raj regime and bureaucratic stranglehold over administrative reforms have all successfully been able to scuttle such reform moves until now.

Today, the issues in bureaucracy are many. Poor professionalism, patchy quality of policy-making, absence of benchmarking, capability deficit and relevant skills gap, poor public service aptitude, inadequate of economic development aptitude, incompetence, inefficiency and ineffectiveness, poor use of technology, partiality and bias, resistance to change, prevalence of mai-baap culture, collusion with political class, nexus with vested and special interests, widespread corruption, little empathy towards the needs of citizens it serves, crony capitalism, poor connect with public, etc are all widely known. Casteism, regionalism and communalism are also widely prevalent which significantly hamper its functioning, delivery and credibility. This has led to repeated violations of social, economic and political rights of people - especially of the weaker sections.

Too many generalists, too much of discretionary power (and its misuse), little accountability, security of job, constitutional protection (Article 311 and Sec 6A of Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946) that has outlived its utility and is grossly misused, ruler/regulator role instead of facilitator, lack of reward and deterring punishment on delivery or non-delivery, absence of personal responsibility, interference of politicians, frequent transfers and lack of continuity are some of the critical systemic issues afflicting the "steel frame". This is notwithstanding the fact that bureaucracy has some very competent, upright and bright people within its fold but their spark, talent, vigour and motivation are usually marred and blunted by the long standing systemic ills of bureaucracy.

Then, there is very little delivery driven and performance improvement culture in bureaucracy eg lack of objective and scientific performance measurement. One can't improve anything which doesn't ever get measured.The tragedy of performance in current bureaucracy is that a zero and a hero are appraised and treated alike. There is simply no systemic incentive or reward for talent and hard work towards motivating it to perform to its potential and to excel. This invariably leads talent to waste into mediocrity over time. Culture of excellence appears to be an alien phrase in this space.

Structurally, the issues start right at the recruitment stage - in the entrance exam where bureaucrats (excluding a few academicians or armed forces on UPSC panels) primarily select future bureaucrats during interview. The post-induction training and subsequent mid-career training programmes are of arguably procedural and routine nature. The role of a bureaucrat has itself widened beyond recognition - from handling only revenue and law and order in 1950s to a plethora of administrative and regulative functions today. Widerange of responsibilities and excessive workload has often led many in bureaucracyto fail in handling and doing full justice to their assigned work. There is no mid-career appraisal system to remove the bottom 20-25 per cent in bureaucratic machinery. Absence of any mid-career performance appraisal to weed out the chronic non-performers leads to further crippling of bureaucracy with redundancy for the next 15-20 years. Lack of independent social or community (performance) audit, very little leveraging of technology and analytics in planning anddelivery, focus on adherence to rules instead of on outcomes, reactive approach to governance instead of a proactive one, absence of collaboration and partnership with citizens, advisory nature of constitutional offices of CVC and CAG, absence of Lokpal, lack of any lateral entry of professionals and experts in middle and senior levels of bureaucracy, etc are some major impediments in removing redundancy and achieving operational efficiency, innovation, integrity and accountability from bureaucracy.

Moreover, domain expertise and functional experience at middle and senior levels of bureaucracy has been ignored for far too long. Given the vastness of scale, scope, complexities, opportunities and challenges before a modern emerging nation and the skills and experience required to comprehend and deal with the same, it is mind-boggling that bureaucrats without specific skills and relevant domain experience lead the entire gamut of technical ministries (finance, IT, telecom, power, coal, aviation, law, economic affairs, industry/commerce, environment, etc) at both Centre and in states. Interestingly, the same generalist bureaucrat leads functional and complex PSUs, commissions and regulatory authorities like SEBI, RBI, Air India, Coal India, SAIL, TRAI, CERC, PDIL, NHAI, Rubber Board, Spice Board, patents and trademarks, and hundreds of others.

The most interesting aspect of bureaucrats heading these PSUs and regulating agencies is that there is hardly any continuity and accountability as these bureaucrats move on to some other assignment after their tenure at ministries and PSUs. Due to job security, they can't even be dismissed even if they take a PSU down into red during their tenure. Even after their retirements, they end up grabbing independent directors positions on boards of PSUs (using them as parking lots). It is amazing to note that 35-40 per cent of independent directors on boards of Maharatnas and Navratnas are retired bureaucrats today.

The answer lies in lateral entry of professionals and experts, internal domain experience, merit and skill-based deployments and postings, fixed tenures and continuity, corporate style planning and financial management, objective setting, annual targets and performance backed appraisal, mid-career assessment, performance-backed proportionate reward and punishment, replacement of discretionary authority with objective and rational non-discriminatory performance standards, removal of all constitutional protections, strengthening of rational-simplified transparent systems and processes, leveraging of technology and IT systems in execution, etc. For instance, the office of district magistrate/collector could be divested of development and judicial functions and let it focus only on core functions of revenue collection, law and order and coordination with different agencies.

Governance can't be good governance until it is enabled with optimal use of skills, systems, processes and technology. Key drivers of efficiency in governmental services are convenience of interfacing with government, ease of use, simplicity of interaction and choice of alternative delivery channels. Technology is the key enabler behind these drivers. Efficiency, optimised processes, effectiveness and technology go hand in hand. With innovation, creativity, speed, and ease of use, technology has gone on to change the way people live and work forever. Technology is a great leveller and equity enabler too. Moreover, it has the potential to revolutionise government functioning and citizen outreach. Unless power of technology is harnessed optimally and rationally, efficient delivery of governmental services and programmes to the weakest in the chain will be a distant dream.

Digitisation, e-governance, operational resilience, departmental portals, online transactional services, customer relationship management, cheap access to reliable internet/web services/mobile services, data integrity and privacy, integration of databases and networks across governmental agencies, credible payment gateways, robust scheduling software, cyber security, New-Age project management, etc are primary requirements for a new age governance ecosystem. The priorities of overall digitisation, automation and ICT (Information and Communication Technology) leverage will have to be set right. Powerful social media will have to be increasingly leveraged by government departments and agencies in order to enhance citizen engagement (through interaction and communication) and improve quality of government's service delivery. The daunting challenge will be to get the bureaucracy moving in order to embrace new technology, to integrate various legacy platforms and databases - BPL, APL, Aadhar, driving license, PAN, etc, to reduce IT infrastructure costsand to move the old age opaque, outdated governance mechanism - from paper files, floppy disks, CDs, MS Excel, etc, onto the 21st century new age smart technologies and digitised competency and delivery eg cloud computing, big data, mobile and web-based delivery platforms, etc.

Statutes and laws which have lost meaning and relevance in present times must be repealed in right earnest. Such archaic redundant laws are unwarranted burden on the governance structure and hamper its responsiveness and credibility. The laws and rules must reflect the liberalism and dynamism of changing realities on ground. Redundant and obsolete laws (and there are many in the system) that hold back bureaucratic functioning and delivery must be weeded out quickly. Colonial era laws which are in direct conflict with constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights in independent India must go. All pre/post-independence statutes and rules which breed inaccessibility of public and secrecy in governance need to be identified and be removed quickly. Bureaucracy must be working with laws which are in sync with the needs of this day and age. If bureaucracy has to deliver the desired goals, progressive, just and reasonable laws - reflecting present day realities enabling quick decision-making, efficiency, effectiveness and compliance will have to replace antiquated laws.

Renewed focus will have to be on execution efficiency and management than merely on policy advice. Competence and public service approach, standards of responsiveness and performance, integrity and ethical standards, citizen-centric and facilitative approach, flexibility and adaptability, innovation and creativity, information sharing and full accountability, enhanced trust levels and confidence, recognition and protection of rights and values in governance, objective setting and outcome measurement, timely appropriate rewards and punishment - all will have to be built into the reformed governance structure to deliver the India that everybody is looking for. With a new decisive and visionary dispensation at the Centre in place and kicking, time for incremental and cosmetic changes in governance will not suffice as the pace of requiredchange is fast and exponential.

This nation has borne with poor archaic laws and governance deficit for long and is not ready to accept more of the same. Aspirational India of today has the optimism and confidence, the power of youth, the talent and education, the spirit of enterprise and a decisive leadership at the helms to go all out for the desired outcome. It needs a paradigm shift towards a responsive, efficient and effective decision-making governmental structure and processes in place to make it happen. This is the nation's calling.

Writer

Munawwar Haque Munawwar Haque

The writer is a former senior business executive and now a political commentator.

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