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Good governance: Quotient of change integral

Written by The Optimist

The concept of good governance is pretty difficult to define as identifying the ‘golden mean’ is a challenge and with time inconsistency, the paradox becomes even more convoluted. TCA Srinivasa Raghavan talks about the concerted efforts to tweak the instruments of governance that might give an insight into the much-needed remodelling of the rustic rules of the land, sharpening the administrative equipment, in turn, to facilitate change 

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

There are two aspects to good governance that matter. One is the principles on which it is based and the other is the instruments that deliver it. One is about justice in its broadest possible sense while the other is about power in its narrowest possible sense. And here lies one of the biggest problems of governance, which is to find the golden mean. That is why trying to define good governance is like going around the proverbial elephant with a blindfold and trying to identify it. 

Different people, as the parable of the nine blindfolded men around the elephant says, will come up with nine different versions of what they are touching. 

None will be right because you cannot deduce if the whole is from a single or two or even more parts. In formal logic, this is called the fallacy of composition wherein what is true of the parts is not necessarily true of the whole. In a logical method, this is the difference between deduction and induction. In deduction, the general leads to the particular and in induction, the particular leads to the general. Therefore, we have to be very careful while discussing good governance. 

The fact that a foolish and/or insensitive sub-inspector of police doesn’t register an FIR doesn’t mean the entire police in the country is insensitive and foolish. Nor is the opposite true. You can have every single FIR registered and yet not have good policing. 

It’s simply the nature of the beast. It’s described best by a formulation made by a 19th-century Italian engineer-cum-sociologist-cum economist called Vilfredo Pareto. He said a situation can be said to have improved only if not a single person feels he or she is worse off. It’s called the Pareto Criterion in welfare economics and is impossible to fulfil. And therein lies the central dilemma of good governance. It necessarily leaves at least one person worse off. Thus, jailing a thief is good for society but the thief feels worse off. If you ask him he will say governance is very poor. 

Before proceeding further, we must add another variable to the problem: electoral politics. In the short run, this worsens governance but improves it in the long run. So, time becomes another important factor in gauging governance. 

In fact, there is a major paradox here. At any given point of time, a survey will show that governance quality is poor. But taken over a longer period on a series of objective criteria, it would have improved. There is no solution to this paradox because of what is called time inconsistency. This happens when preferences change over time. Again, there is no solution to the problem that this creates perceptions about governance. 

A third related issue is of arbitrary versus rule-based governance. In general, the former offers better governance solutions than the latter. A classic example of this is the policeman who slaps a traffic offender. The alternative is a court-dependent solution. Now, which yields better governance in the sense of teaching the offender to behave better? 

Hence, as we can understand, it’s not easy or perhaps even possible to arrive at any sensible conclusion about the quality of governance. But having said that, it is still possible to make concerted efforts to move in a Paretian direction by tweaking the instruments of governance. This is what is (very hesitatingly) attempted below. 

Mammoth task 

All governments have one vehicle and one instrument to ensure good governance. The vehicle is the law of the land and the judges who apply it. The instrument is a collection of administrative agencies. In India, we need to reform both because both have been left behind by the variegated times. The framework that supports laws is our Constitution. We need to begin there. 

Our Constitution needs reform because it focuses too much on process. This feature has become a hindrance in good governance which is a function of improved administrative law, not constitutional process. This has empowered the Supreme Court beyond what the Constitution itself envisages to intervene in administrative matters. This does not make for good governance because it ties the hands of the government even when what it proposes is necessary for good governance. This, in turn, has led to haphazard amendments over the last 68 years. If no other Constitution is as big and as detailed as ours, no other Constitution has been amended as many times either — 104 at last count in 68 years as opposed to just 25 in 225 years in the US. 

There is another major hindrance that no one talks about: the distribution of power between the Centre and the states. What was necessary for 1950 to unite India by having three lists — the Central, the States and the Concurrent — is not so any longer. There has to be a reversal of responsibilities by pruning the Central list, deleting or drastically reducing the Concurrent list and expanding the States list. Governance happens there, not in New Delhi. We don’t need a nanny Centre anymore. The states now have the capacity to govern themselves. They must become responsible, and not merely electorally accountable. 

When governance is discussed in India, it is largely about the executive. But this is wrong because justice is as much a part of good governance as, say, law and order. On this count, India fails miserably. The entire legal infrastructure — judges, legal practices, conventions and even buildings — needs a massive overhaul. Any number of recommendations has been made in this regard to little avail. 

Rusty instruments

To build a good garden, two things are needed: a good gardener and good instruments. No matter how good a prime minister or a chief minister is, if the administrative tools at their disposal are blunt, governance will be poor. In India, we have many such tools but the most important of them all because of the power vested in it is the IAS. It sets the tone. 

The problem is that it has become blunt. It needs to be reformed so that the other services can be too. 

The predecessor to the IAS was the ICS, which was meant to manage the districts for land revenue and law and order. But manage now means keeping politicians under check and where necessary, accommodating them. In that sense, the IAS is the worst job on earth because it has to deal with political parties. By the mid-1960s, a major change had occurred: the local politician — MP, MLA or just troublemaker — had displaced the Collector and the SP as the de facto boss of the district. 

On the whole, however, the IAS has coped well with this problem but at the cost of speed and efficiency and, in no longer rare cases, integrity. That sad tale can be told another time.

Another major change happened after 1971 when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi turned to the IAS to make, manage and execute policy. The consequences have been terrible because persons with zero or near-zero qualifications in the intricate matters of state’s social, legal, commercial and economic matters were asked to do things about which they had no clue. 

They were well-meaning officers but they brought with them the district management approach: gradualism and minimalism. Simultaneously, as the complexities increased and finding themselves out of their depth, they started to rely increasingly on process, procedure and precedent, the last refuge of the inadequate. But this expertise of process, procedure and precedent were only available in the lower bureaucratic reaches of the ministries where institutional memory resides. Over time, the whole thing looked like a massive traffic jam — very dysfunctional as the ministries began to work in silos. It continues that way despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s best efforts. 

What we need is a new service, which I would like to call the Indian Policy Management Service. The key lies in specialisation, which has been talked about for over five decades but not given effect to. The generalist approach is completely useless in the 21st century. The ‘learn on the job’ approach is no longer any good. There is far too much to learn.

Officers of the Policy Management Service should be recruited from the IAS. When they have completed five years in service, they will sit for an examination that indicates their aptitudes. No weights will be attached to individual preferences. Successful officers will be posted either to state capitals in a department of the Central government in a ministry. They will remain there for the next 25 years undergoing periodic re-training in that domain. After 25 years, they will once again be placed in a general pool so that they can compete for higher posts like Cabinet Secretary on an equal footing. 

The rest of the officers including those who choose not to take the exam or those who fail will carry on as before in executive functions. In both cases, domain knowledge will automatically develop and be put to good use.

For those bureaucrats who prefer not to make any change without a precedent, let me remind them: in 1953, Jawaharlal Nehru had started a service called the Industrial Management Pool. It was eventually sabotaged by the ICS/IAS which wanted all the key posts in the public sector reserved for themselves. Even someone as powerful as V Krishnamurthy, former chairman of BHEL and SAIL, was not able to break the IAS stranglehold fully.

It is worth noting that one reason why these two PSUs have done so well is that they had kept the IAS out. Conversely, if you look at the ones that are doing badly, including most notably Air India, they have been headed for a large part by IAS officers.

Assuming this is eventually done, what is to be done immediately and for the next 15 years while the new service gets going properly? The answer is simple: (a) get officers from the states at the deputy secretary level; (b) stop the rotation principle currently in force, and (c) enforce specialisation at the state level. The last is critical.

Once an officer joins, say, the ministry of textiles as deputy secretary in the 10th year of service, he will stay in that ministry till he turns 55. If that doesn’t make him a domain expert, nothing will. He should be retired. Ditto in the case of states.

Incidentally, few people know it but one of the biggest changes that Narendra Modi has brought in is to embark softly down this path. Today, nearly 65 per cent of joint secretary-level posts are manned by non-IAS people from the other services. 

There is a lot more to do but this could be a good starting point. The instruments do need a lot of sharpening. 

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The Optimist

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