Fix accountability of both Political Executive & Civil Services
APRIL 30, 2016
By Naresh Minocha, Our Consulting Editor
THE Neta-Babu cozy ties have lately come under fresh phase of strain. And the strain is serious one to merit a scrutiny. This will show how civil servants and ministers have jointly derailed or sidetracked vital administrative reforms over the decades. And both have thus taken the public for a ride!
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month did loud thinking on declining accountability of officials to elected representatives of people. Replying to debate in Lok Sabha on President's budget session address to Parliament, he sought the cooperation of the Opposition to devise means to increase accountability of the executive.
Without cooperation of all MPs, he believed, this challenge can't be overcome. "The government of the day would get abused, second government would come and the executive would continue to have merry time ," Mr. Modi bemoaned. (translated from his Hindi speech)
Delhi Chief Minister, Avind Kejriwal, outdid PM while delivering a lecture on civil service day on 20th April 2016. Mr. Kejriwal pitched for a bureaucracy that is totally committed to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that swept to power with brute majority.
He recollected suspension of two officials of DANICS cadre by Delhi Government and the resulting one-day protest leave availed by cadre officials in December 2015. And he thundered: "We can tolerate anything but we will not tolerate politics. If you are interested in politics, then resign, contest elections and confront us."
Referring to a letter sent to him by a very senior Delhi Official, Mr. Kejriwal reportedly said: "This officer wrote that the permanent bureaucracy is the government, the minister is not the government. Bureaucracy is the government."
Well, it is not for the first time that he has berated bureaucracy.
In December 2015, he had described the officials' protest leave as an act of "goodaism". He warned bureaucrats that his government would throw them out of Delhi if they did not follow their orders. He also did loud thinking on replacing generalist bureaucrats with professionals and experts to bring innovations in governance.
The fact is that Mr. Kejriwal just does not want to respect the constitutional and administrative division of power between the Centre and Delhi. And he wants to get around this limitation by bullying officials, who go by the rule book.
Turn now to the ground reality on accountability of both political and administrative executive.
Modi Government last year inflicted a deadly blow to the joint accountability of ministers, bureaucrats & government as a whole by abandoning UPA's governance efficiency initiative. It is called Performance Monitoring and Evaluation System (PMES) under which over 80 ministries and departments prepared Results Framework Document (RFD).
RFD outlined policies, schemes and other initiatives that each ministry intended to take in a year with three or four milestones. The document listed steps need to achieve them. These included cooperation from other relevant ministries and Cabinet Secretariat. RFDs, issued at the beginning of a year, were uploaded on the respective website of each entity. It served a benchmark for comparison of actual achievement of each ministry and its appendages at the end of year.
After Modi Government took reins in May 2014, Cabinet Secretariat's Performance Management Division (PMD) evaluated how far RFDs for 2014-15 were aligned with BJP's Lok Sabha Manifesto and Government's development agenda as enunciated by President in his address to Parliament after constitution of new Lok Sabha. This served as mirror on the wall for BJP leadership that prefers adulation over positive criticism.
Many journalists and analysts used RFD as objective source of benchmarking performance of ministries. A few of them pinpointed gaps between promises and delayed action or inaction.
Modi Government, whose aversion to transparency is monumental, obviously realized that it would be subjected to criticism more frequently if it continued and improved RFDs. Hence it quietly did away with RFDs in 2015-16 without making any disclosure! The fact the Government abandoned RFDs was revealed in a terse reply to a Parliament question.
Answering a question in Rajya Sabha on 10th December 2015, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, Dr. Jitendra Singh, disclosed: "Various Ministries had outlined their objectives and targets for the year 2014-15. However, the Government has not further pursued the mechanism of the Performance Monitoring and Evaluation System (PMES) for the year 2014-15 and thereafter."
Four days later, an IT expert in a Government blog articulated this bizarre decision. He wrote: with Mr. Modi and Cabinet Secretariat directly monitoring progress of schemes and projects of all ministries through eSamiksha and PRAGATI projects, "the government has scrapped a major scheme through which performance of ministries was monitored since 2011."
According to Government, eSamiksha is a real time, online system for monitoring of follow-up action on the decisions taken during the presentations made by different Ministries to PM. The follow-up action in respect of each decision is to be updated by the concerned Ministry/Department/Agency as and when the status changes or at least every month.
The catch here is that eSamiksha website can't be accessed by any unauthorized user. Only authorized government officials can access it through secured login/password mechanism. Thus, the Government has effectively killed scope for any objective, rational analysis of governance deficit that was offered by RFDs.
Similarly, project monitoring website pragati ( Pro-active Governance and Timely Implementation) can be accessed only authorized Government representatives through login/password system.
This situation is similar to the one on which the Officer Shortage Committee (OSC) voiced concern way back in November 1947. OSC observed: "Ministries and officers often lack knowledge of the working of other ministries and offices and most of them have one common fault, a desire to be self-sufficient and independent. In some cases too they have no time, even if they have the inclination, to review their own methods and organisation from time to time."
It is ironical that the Opposition didn't corner Mr. Modi on this issue when he sought its cooperation in enhancing accountability of the civil servants.
Moreover, the decision to draw curtains over RFDs was taken in spite of its appreciation from different quarters.
India Ratings & Research (Ind-Ra), for instance, called it a step in the right direction. In a special report submitted in June 2014, Ind-Ra stated that PMES is an "opportune step to improve public governance and deliver better public goods/services in India."
It believed that "uploading the latest performance evaluation reports alongside the RFD documents of various ministries/departments on the PMD website will infuse confidence among people regarding PMES."
Similarly, 7th Central Pay Commission (CPC) hailed RFDs "as the primary assessment tool to measure performance of departments." In its report submitted in November 2015, recommended introduction of the Performance Related Pay for all categories of Central Government employees, based on quality RFDs, reformed APARs (Annual Performance Appraisal Reports).
Like Modi Government, its predecessor, UPA, developed cold feet in embracing bold accountability norms recommended by 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) in its 10th report titled 'Refurbishing of Personnel Administration – Scaling New Heights' submitted in 2008.
A few retired civil servants drew Supreme Court's attention to Government inaction on this and several other reports in a public interest litigation initiated in 2011. Notwithstanding apex court's verdict in favour of good governance in October 2013, UPA avoided biting the bullet.
In its action taken report on this made released a few months before its exist in 2014, UPA, for example, rejected recommendation envisaging signing of annual performance agreement between minister and secretary of concerned ministry/department and evaluation of the agreement by third party, perhaps the proposed Central Civil Services Authority.
UPA Government concluded: "It might not be feasible to have annual performance agreements."
Similarly, it shot down ARC recommendation envisaging showing exit door to all public servants who are unfit to continue in service after 2 nd review of their performance on completion of 20 years in service.
UPA also deferred decision on ARC's other vital recommendations such as creating a framework for political neutrality of civil servants and enacting a civil service law.
In its first tenure, UPA regime diluted an important instrument of accountability. Named 'A Responsive Administration' , the instrument existed for two decades as Point 20 of restructured 20-Point Programme (TPP) 1986.
The action plan for responsive administration included steps such as simplifying procedure, delegating authority, enforcing accountability, devising monitoring system from block to national level and prompt redressal of public grievances.
Each ministry prepared specific initiatives under these five sub-headings and these were evaluated four times in a year.
UPA restructured TPP in 2006 and renamed point 20 as IT Enabled e-Governance. TPP was originally launched by Mrs. Indira Gandhi Government in 1975.
Like UPA, preceding regimes dragged feet in implementing administrative reforms especially to make both political executive and civil services more accountable.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government, for instance, did not take a call on the recommendations of National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) that submitted its report in 2002. UPA Government passed the buck to different ministries to take follow-up action on recommendations relevant to their domain. Consequently, hardly any action was taken on NCRWC's recommendations.
It is here pertinent to recall NCRWC's recommendation for setting up autonomous personnel boards under statutory provisions to recommend postings, promotions, etc of officials to political executive.
It stated: "The principle is not to take politics out of personnel policy but to make knowledge and information institutionally available to the political decision-makers on the basis of appropriate parliamentary legislation under article 309. The sanctity of parliamentary legislation under article 309 is needed to counteract the publicly known trends of the play of unhealthy and destabilizing influences in the management of public services in general and higher civil services in particular."
NCRWC also recommended enactment of two more laws and certain other reforms to improve civil services.
It observed: " Evidence of moral and professional failure of administrative apparatus is too overwhelming to ignore. Yet the services have remained largely immune from imposition of penalties due to the complicated procedures that have grown out of the constitutional guarantee against arbitrary and vindictive action (article 311). The constitutional safeguards have in practice acted to shield the guilty against swift and certain punishment for abuse of public office for private gain. A major corollary has been erosion of accountability. It has accordingly become necessary to re-visit the issue of constitutional safeguards under article 311 to ensure that the honest and efficient officials are given the requisite protection but the dishonest are not allowed to prosper in office."
The story of feeble attempts on many initiatives and inaction on countless others has reduced accountability of both civil services and politicians to a zero sum game.
2 nd ARC pithily summed up this issue in its 10th report: "It is ironical that there has been no sincere attempt to restructure the civil service although more than six hundred committees and commissions have looked into different aspects of public administration in the country. Rather, the Indian reform effort has been unfailingly conservative, with limited impact…. The Indian civil service reform efforts were not even correction slips – they were more in the nature of endorsement slips."
Mr. Modi should reflect on this observation. It would be much better if he takes it up as Desh kae Mann Ki Baat as administrative efficiency influences public delivery of services. He should ponder over unimplemented recommendations of other entities especially the 1 st ARC, which submitted 20 reports during its 4-year tenure ending June 1970.
Ist ARC's recommendation to set up Lok Pal remains unimplemented after 46 years! Let Mr. Modi make a beginning on accountability starting with political accountability and that with PM's office. He should get Opposition's cooperation if he fast-tracks The Lokpal and Lokayuktas and Other Related Law (Amendment) Bill, 2014 in current session of Parliament.
If bill is not passed for any reason, he can prove his resolve for accountability by setting up Lok Pal through an Ordinance. This should be followed by a blanket offer to Lok Pal to access any file of the Government.
Simultaneously, he should embrace transparency and thus restore RFDs. He should engage the public as stakeholders in monitoring the working of ministers and civil servants through RFDs.
PM should also set up a committee to investigate why so many good recommendations made by numerous committees on administrative reforms have remained unimplemented. From this, he should prepare a blueprint for reforms.
Before seeking cooperation from the Opposition to improve civil servants' accountability, he should first increase accountability to his own conscience and to the public criticism resulting from the failures to fulfill many poll promises.