"Administrative reforms" (AR) is one of the most widely debated phrases in public policy circles. No discussion about governance is complete without AR. It is often seen as the one magic wand that can solve many of the governance ills that bedevil our polity. Numerous commissions have been appointed by successive governments to study AR, and the contents of these reports get dusted up with the same frequency as the change in Governments.
The main recommendations of these AR reports are the same - transparency, accountability, decentralization, changes in recruitment process etc. AR initiated so far have sought to either reduce the bureaucracy (a hiring freeze on central government bureaucracy since 2001), decentralization of authority and devolution of powers through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992, bringing in transparency in administration by promulgation of the RTI in 2005 etc.
These are all undoubtedly important reforms, critical to infusing a spirit of responsiveness in the bureaucracy, and will surely have some impact on the larger society and polity. But beyond addressing the issues at a superficial level, they fail to contextualize the reforms and appreciate the need to link with specific outcomes. They do not address critical operational challenges faced at the cutting-edge of service delivery. Therefore, by themselves these macro-level reforms are not likely to achieve much.
Popular (and even among more informed citizens) stereotype of the reasons for the inefficiencies in our bureaucracy and polity focus only on corruption and venality of the functionaries - bureaucrats and politicians. It has been widely argued that once we bring in transparency and accountability to the system, many of these problems will get resolved by themselves, and our administration will become more efficient. But experiences from across the world would indicate that such simplified diagnosis and prescription for improving administrative effectiveness may not be fully correct. For example, the Chinese (and previously the East Asian economies) bureaucracy and polity has none of these aforementioned desirables, but is still very effective.
Recently The Economist carried an article about the Indian civil service which captured a few interesting facets of our bureaucratic system, and in particular the work of a typical District Collector. It raised a very pertinent question, "India has some of the hardest-working bureaucrats in the world, but its administration has an abysmal record of serving the public".
The Economist paints the picture of the District Collector as a very hardworking officer, struggling with the diverse and complex challenges facing his district. As the most popular chronicler of rural poverty and development in India, P Sainath informs in his popular book, "Everyone loves a good drought", though many of India's most backward districts have been administered for long years by some of the best officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), they continue to remain backward. It is clear that the outcomes have not been in proportion to the efforts and expectations.
Describing the work schedule of the District Collector of Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh, The Economist writes, "Mr Samphel reckons he spends 60% of his time dealing with individual supplicants—also outside the collectorate. As the Ambassador turns back on to the road, it is waylaid by a tractor bringing a cartload of petitioners in from a distant village. Then one of Mr Samphel's three mobile phones bleeps. Someone wants firewood; Mr Samphel calls a forestry official to relay the request. It is a hugely impressive performance. Mr Samphel works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and reckons he has had two days off since 2003. But this is hardly an efficient way to minister to a needy population almost half the size of New Zealand's!"
Yes, that surely is not the way Helen Clark administers New Zealand. Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to capture a few vignettes of the problems and challenges facing our governance systems. The first will be about the institution of the District Collector.