The 75th Independence Day is a good time to take a relook at governance, as this was the day that we actually gained independence from foreign governance. The British did leave but they left behind a governance structure that was built to command and control a large population. It was not built for flexibility, efficiency or speed, hence the moniker — the steel frame — was given to the bureaucratic system. But after 75 years, the rusted steel frame is impeding progress and failing to address the aspirations of the country. But like everything else it can be changed, right? The only real effort to change besides the myriad reform committees has been executed by the Narendra Modi’s government, But the steel frame can change, right?
That’s the most important question: what can you change? How much of it can be changed? Can it really be changed? To understand the import of these questions about change, we need an analogy: Changing the wheels in a moving train. Very few people can change a wheel of a moving train and, say, the driver is one of them. Now, the driver feels that there is nothing wrong with the wheel; he also feels that he will be taking undue risk if he tries to change that wheel. He also knows that there is no incentive for changing the wheel; he might just let it roll, as one wheel out of the thousands is not really going to make a difference. Ergo, no change of wheel. As the driver knows that one rusted wheel will not affect the train, he will wait till the train reaches the yard after the end of the journey. Now, in the yard, imagine nobody is really responsible for a wheel change either and the train is soon out of the yard for a new journey, with a new driver who has no clue about the rusted wheel. No change again. This process goes on and on, the wheel falls off but still nobody notices.
This is akin to why change is difficult to implement in a government system. There is no incentive for the top officials to implement the change as they know they will retire soon. The system, like people, never wants to change and resists any small attempts to change. Moreover, process change is even more difficult as it has been codified by the Britishers into the bureaucracy — it’s like asking a flowing stream to reverse its course. A dam can stop it but reversing it is nearly impossible.
Process changes in a bureaucratic system are hard to do. The whole purpose of the bureaucracy is to follow the steps given to it during British times when the objective was for a few white men to control the whole nation.
Action was not really encouraged; initiative was to be buried in triplicate forms to be approved by a whole chain of command. Until now, 15 reports have been submitted to the Second Administrative Reforms Committee, the last one in 2009. The 13th report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) focused on recommendations pertaining to the reforms in the structure of the Government of India by developing a pro-active, efficient and flexible ‘organisational’ framework on 31 August 2005.
The key recommendation of the 13th report ARC was to have a detailed delegation at all levels and this scheme of delegation should be made public. Decision-making units should be identified in each department. The number of levels through which a file passes for a decision should not exceed three levels.
For instance, where the minister’s approval is required, the file should be initiated by the Deputy Secretary/Director concerned and should be moved through the Joint Secretary (or Additional Secretary/Special Secretary) and the Secretary (or Special Secretary) to the Minister.
Recommendations notwithstanding, until March 2021 when the Modi government decided, no action on the proposals made by the 13th ARC, which meant every file in the government was signed by almost everybody in the department till the time it reached approval stage at the ministerial level or secretary level. The fact is that not everybody who signs it actually reads it and not everybody who reads understands it, and not everybody who understands can do anything about it. Every signature is equally important as that is the system; the file goes on every desk and this delays the action. But then taking action is never the objective for a file or the system per-se. A file, like a government decision, has a life and mind of its own which is why it is the most powerful tool for governance.
Nothing can happen verbally in the government. There are no verbal orders — every order to be followed has to be written down and begins with opening of a file. Political leaders may pride themselves on leading the government but a file can only be started by bureaucrats. Hence, digitising the file is the most important reform. PM Modi improved governance as a CM in Gujarat because every file in the state had a barcode and was thus tagged. A reform not many talk about is: what is a small barcode on top of a file going to change? But it is remarkable that a simple act of tracking of a file by the CM’s office ensured that it moved and, if it did not, the desk it was languishing on could be questioned. Now, technology allows the whole file to be digitised. Hence the number of people who have approved it can be monitored. So only in March 2021, the Modi government issued a four-pronged approach to make the system move faster — Delayering, Delegating, Desk Officer System and Digitisation.
Hence, all the 52 ministries and 51 departments in the government of India were asked to report on these four parameters. An impact evaluation report to monitor efficiency on the implementation of some of the process reforms recommended 17 years back and implemented only by the Modi government was recently released by the Quality Council of India.
The impact evaluation report evaluates the status of the implementation of the four-pronged reforms for each ministry and department. This is not an easy evaluation as the bureaucracy does not like external agencies to evaluate its performance hence there are indices that show relative performances. The report is out and it gives a breakdown but it has evinced little interest in the reform shouting brigade.
When the government announces a forward-looking policy, there is a lot of attention around it as it seems like a major reform. But if the government announces changes in the way it deals with the public or the way it handles mundane things like files and approvals, hardly anyone even bats the proverbial eyelid. This is because process reforms are not exciting to write about; they are such minor tweaks that you cannot wring a headline out of them.
Therefore, process reforms get ignored. But it is process reforms that finally go on to improve the way a government works or governance actually delivers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power on the back of a powerful slogan: minimum government and maximum governance. The armchair critics often derided the government about this, saying that he has not reduced the size of the government, so where is the minimum government. The process of reforms in the government shows that the minimum government is not just the size of the government but also the number of people involved in a decision and the speed at which decisions are implemented. This has now been achieved to a certain extent as per the evaluation report. And this is a major reform.
After almost eight years they cannot say the same for governance as it has improved substantially. From the original paralysis in the government that he inherited it is a government that has shifted the delivery of major schemes directly to beneficiaries removing the middleman in the system. Technology is being used actively in delivery of government services. And as part of the Amrit Mahotsav, every ministry has prepared a 25-year vision for itself. This is not just an envisioning exercise to make the ministers feel good; it is a goal that is being set and one of the conditions is to incorporate technology into its execution. Technology that may be open source will use the best practices of the digital public goods world and create a system that will be better and a world’s first.
It is important to remember in the 75th year of Independence that we might have shaken off the white man’s yoke in 1947 but our systems are reinventing themselves only under Narendra Modi. In a way our systems are learning to think for themselves and that is true independence of thought.
A Happy 75th Independence Day to all of you.
K Yatish Rajawat is a researcher at Centre for Innovation in Public Policy (www.CIPP.in). For feedback and insights write to firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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