India’s Civil Services must move beyond single-minded devotion to set ‘procedure’
Being faceless is not being heartless. This is the refrain from Rajiv Gauba, the Cabinet Secretary to the Government of India, in his interaction with the officers attending the third phase of their Mid-Career Training Program (MCTP) at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration last Monday. When systems move online and function in a manner which cuts transaction cost and time, it is beneficial for every stakeholder, except rent-seekers who would never want the system to deliver for its cuts discretion, and promotes patronage/corruption. In any case, why should a person who is entitled to a scholarship or a certificate of domicile or insurance benefits have to meet a 'person at the counter' if the application can be handled online? This does not imply that in case of a problem, the citizen cannot meet the concerned official and get the issues resolved. Gauba said that even as we try to improve our systems and processes, we should not become 'prisoners of the process'. The process is there to support the citizen for 'ease of living', and as technology changes, we need to review the process periodically to make it better – the best systems are those in which a continuous feedback loop is in-built.
Earlier in his inaugural address, he had raised some key points, five of which are key takeaways. The first was that as India makes the transition from being primarily agrarian to a vibrant urban conglomeration, our delivery systems, response mechanisms and administrative systems have to reflect this change. Such institutions will have to transform themselves to respond in 'real-time'. We have to take cognisance of the best global practices: mayors had been taking a 'hands-on' role in the management of the city – from investment promotion to school enrolment and almost all the municipal and policing functions.
Second, the policy and regulatory frameworks will play an increasingly important role in the functioning of the bureaucracy. If the IAS could be at the forefront of this change, it would be mutually beneficial. He referred to the 'yet' in Bharat Karnad's book, Why India is Not a Great Power (yet), and said that it was for us to retrospect and take up the challenge of ensuring that the real potential of the nation comes to the fore. Issues like conclusive 'land titling' could reduce the generation of new cases, besides settling numerous others that were clogging the judicial system. Even as India had moved many notches in the Ease of Doing Business, there was much more that could be done to encourage entrepreneurship at all levels. Our labour laws were in the process of being simplified into well-understood codes: the purpose was to make it easier for business to hire more people in the MSME sector where the bulk of employment was likely to be generated.
Next, he referred to the demographic advantages which India have over China and the rest of the world. The mean age of an Indian is 28, compared to 38 in China and 48 in Japan. A young nation like ours, therefore, had to be made future-ready to reap this dividend, which also had the potential of turning into a nightmare if it was not properly harnessed. Skilling India in an eco-system of rapid but sustainable economic growth was imperative, and it is for us to ensure that India did not miss the bus.
The fourth point was about 'technology in governance', and its potential to make life easier for citizens and entrepreneurs, as well as for those in administration. From the GeM (Government e-Marketplace) to the processing of visa applications and the IT refunds, many interactions are now online. This has not only made life easier but also encouraged many others to participate in the process. However the 'reach' needs to be extended to the vast hinterland, and the initiative of E-NAM (National Agricultural Market) should also be mainstreamed – both for price discovery and price realisation for the primary producers.
Last but not the least, he talked of continuous learning from each other, as well as the online mode which the DoPT (Department of Personnel & Training) was promoting through the iGOT platform. Under this platform, officers can choose the courses they want to take up for their professional as well as personal growth. This would not only enhance their functional and domain competencies but the critique that IAS officers do not adequately pursue specialisation would also be addressed. This will ensure that officers will have the advantage of being part of the knowledge and learning eco-system. Officers also have to learn from the best practices of their colleagues for there are many good exemplars across the country, as many officers had done exceptionally good work in several sectors across geographies. This is also a time to reflect, for they were making the transition from being field functionaries to officers who would closely assist the political leadership in rolling out schemes and programs involving large budgetary outlays and long-term implications on society and economy.
The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal