Friday, October 19, 2018

How the IAS contributes to the 'flailing state'

The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) receives a lot of flak for everything that is dysfunctional about public systems in India. Much of it can be traced back to a psychological urge of opinion makers and critics to identify a specific cause (and therefore solution) and absolve oneself of any responsibility. For several reasons, the IAS is a very convenient punching bag.

But some of the blame is rightly deserved. From reflection, there is perhaps nothing more debilitating than its role as a banyan tree stifling leadership and initiative within line departments. Remember Lant Pritchett famously described India as a "flailing state" - a strong "head" (the IAS) which is very loosely connected to its very weak "limbs" (the field officials). 

Young IAS officers posted in various field positions - Sub Collectors, Project Officials of various agencies, Municipal Commissioners, CEOs of Zilla Panchayats, District Collectors etc - possess unparalleled authority. In a global perspective, there is perhaps no example of such across-the-board power. 

For sure, given the extremely weak state capacity, things work reasonably well on the average due to the enormous energy and commitment of young officers working in these posts. But this is like band-aid on gangrene. 

In the process, these officers centralise authority and exercise them aggressively. Most often they function effectively as the head of the department and directly exercises line departmental authority. It is a very rare officer who steps back and empowers the line department heads or who respects their views. Rarer still are those who allow departmental heads to take critical decisions and stand by them in goods times and bad. Public upbraiding of departmental heads, often in front of their own subordinates, and those below them is common place. The result is an enfeebling of important line department bureaucracies. Taking cue from the Collector, political representatives too follow suit. This, is not to gloss over the self-inflicted apathy, ineptitude, and corruption among departmental officials themselves.

It does not help that there is some crises or the other all too often within each department and the Collector's active engagement becomes critical to defuse the situation. The campaign mode of program delivery of both central and state governments centralises authority even more in the hands of the District Collector. Realising the enormous convening power of the District Collector, departments at state level prefer to engage with them rather than their own line department heads on important issues. 

Consider a District Education Officer or District Health Officer. Each have the responsibility of managing a geography with population ranging from 1-10 million and thousands of teachers and health personnel. They are the equivalent of Permanent Secretary of Education of a small country. How many of them are empowered to act independently? After a career of subservience and taking orders, how many of them still retain the initiative to act independently even if empowered?

And we are not even talking about the Block Education and Health Officers, not to mention the field inspectors or supervisors in either departments. 

This is not to blame young officers for their initiative. Their immense energies and intent to do good cannot be doubted. The challenge is to channel this appropriately to realise the government's objectives.

This practice is not confined to the young officers or for field departments. It applies as much to state level and central Ministries and agencies. 

So what can be done?

To the extent that any meaningful attempt to address our chronic state capacity problems have to start with strengthening frontline functionaries within various departments, it is critical that its leadership be nurtured to find their feet, become empowered, and lead and not follow (the IAS officer). The young IAS officers posted in the field should be made to realise the importance of this. It is for training institutions like the LBSNAA and the State Administrative Training Institutes (ITIs) to help officers internalise this insight.

Collectors, for example, should refrain from becoming de-facto heads of line departments. They have to realise their role should be to support heads of departments perform their functions. They should be leaders of a team, stepping in as required to guide, capacitate, co-ordinate, and monitor. This requires a very different mindset from the current direct execution approach.

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