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Article in The Financial Express
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

Can we improve public service delivery?
September 09, 2005

Yes, by determined parallel pursuit of political and administrative reforms

India has a functioning democracy and several institutions and practices ensure checks and balances and a modicum of governance. Yet, every government feels handicapped in delivering on its promises.
Since the 1980s, there is no serious ideological contention, notwithstanding a few make-believe arguments and politics of populism. There is broad agreement on key areas of state intervention to promote growth with equity. Rule of law, education, healthcare, infrastructure, sustainable natural resource development, urban management, social security and fight against corruption are the obvious priorities. Despite this impressive political consensus, no government is able to ensure outcomes. The resultant gulf between promise and fulfilment is at the heart of the volatility in voter behaviour and the persistent anti-establishment verdicts.

The failure to deliver has direct consequences in terms of sub-par economic growth, persisting poverty, unfulfilled potential, social unrest and political strife. True, we can’t blame the administration alone. Political culture and the process of power have a lot to answer for. But administrative failure is as glaring as political shortcomings.

Politicians and civil servants play the cat and mouse game. The BBC television serial, Yes, Minister, is a classic depiction of this dilemma. The politician is caught between the slow rate of social and economic payoff resulting from sound policies and the short-term political price to pay. Competitive populism and adhocism have become the hallmark of governance. And yet, even when the policies are right, execution is tardy and the politician often receives unjust flak. Politicians and people perceive bureaucracy as inflexible, inward-looking, and insensitive to outcomes. Bureaucrats lampoon politicians as short-sighted, partisan, power-hungry and unrealistic.

A society needs both, politicians and bureaucracy. Negation of politics is the road to tyranny. The only antidote to bad politics is more and better politics. And every system needs a meritocratic and competent bureaucracy. We have to pursue both political and administrative reforms in parallel.

To begin administrative reform, there are three broad approaches. First, we need to decentralise administration, horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, procedures need to be streamlined to remove all bottlenecks and delays. Take, for instance, the universalisation of the ICDS, where policy is not disputed. Yet, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The Supreme Court gave a direction to expand ICDS on April 29, 2004. The government’s decision to implement it came on Dec 29. The scheme was included in Budget 2005-06, with an additional outlay of Rs 1,550. Ordinarily, the scheme should have been implemented from April 1. But that is not the way our government works!

There are many more stages— approval of EFC and CCPA (even after Parliament approval) and formal sanction of the proposed new anganwadi centres. But in a complex federal democracy, even this will not mean delivery. The states are communicated the sanction details and start their own circuitous process! The process could take until the end of August 2006 or 2007, depending on the quality of governance. This, in a scheme universally acclaimed and fully funded! Clearly, a lot can be done to improve speed without un-dermining accou-ntability.

Vertically, we must redesign government on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity. Any task that can be performed by a small unit must not be entrusted to a larger one, unless economies of scale and technical complexity demand it. Financial devolution and personnel transfer should match functional domain determined on this basis. Only then will a citizen see the link between her vote and public good.

Second, government functions are increasingly complex. Policing, justice delivery, education, healthcare, transportation, land management, infrastructure, urban management— demand domain expertise, specialisation, sector experience and deep insights. The colonial practice of recruiting an all-purpose generalist service, and entrusting any sector at any time to any civil servant without adequate expertise is both archaic and dysfunctional. Outside South Asia, no nation follows such a practice.

Due to the monopoly enjoyed by the civil services, excellence is no longer fostered and the public sector is denied the best talent and expertise. We must recognise that the complex challenges of a modern economy and society can’t be faced merely by some intuition and conventional wisdom. The barrier between government and the rest of economy and society must be lowered, allowing free movement based on competence and leadership qualities.

Finally, we have created a delightfully vague system of accountability. Authority almost never goes with responsibility. As a result, we have only victims of misgovernance, but no villains! Fusion of authority with accountability requires a complete re-engineering of public institutions and practices. A system of risks and rewards, strong and independent anti-corruption agencies, innovative measures for direct citizens’ participation, stake-holder empowerment and complete transparency are vital ingredients of good governance.

We do not exist in a vacuum. Our own experience, best practices in India and abroad, and constant innovations offer us a guide to improving our public service delivery. What we need are fierce determination, unrelenting focus on goals, and the strength to withstand pressure from status quoists.



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