BUREAUCRATS SHOULD BE ACCOUNTABLE TO THE PEOPLE
In little Dorrit wrote Charles Dickens: ‘In short, all the business of the country went through the circumlocution office except business that never came out of it and its name was Legion.’
Here he was referring to the functional circumlocution, the feature synonymous with bureaucracy. That is the much publicised image of a bureaucrat in the public view, a conceited blue collar who cares more for routine than for the results. Originating from medieval Prussian empires as the method of effective personnel management, it inherited the legacy of steel framework and rigid attitude, thus, distancing itself from people.
The word ‘bureaucracy’ together with ‘communism’ and ‘imperialism’ forms a trident – the most forceful weapon in the armoury of words so widely used in present-day political controversies. In free translation it means a government by bureau or ‘desk government’. But in common use, it acquired a colour and power as emotion raiser and battle cry. Through distortion and extensive caricature it has come to imply bungling, arbitrariness, waste and regimentation.
As it originated as a system of personnel management, the officials were servants of the ruler in the fullest sense of term. It was through them that the ruler exercised his autocratic power. Thus the officials wielded high authority over the people and were, obviously, deaf to public opinion. That became a distinct and permanent career with a regular gradation of positions with salaries, privileges, etc. An extensive training on technical lines was imparted to them to make them experts in their spheres of activity.
Though the system gave efficiency to administration and secures unity and concentration of power, its disadvantages overscored the advantages.
Government’s interests were harmed as a whole, as the officials formed a different sect and kept far aloof from the masses. All defects of militarism was seen in this system known for its ruthlessness and the tendency to go for personal gains through the power in hand. Thus this form is understood as negation of individual liberty of popular sovereignty.
But as it evolved as a system of administration, it brought the most skilled brains to solve the technical problems. It is said to be the most systematic organisation of tasks and individuals into a pattern which can mostly achieve the ends of collective efforts. All the employees are organised into a hierarchy of officers, each with well-defined set of duties and responsibilities. This is done to get rid of personal consideration in the performance of public duties.
Its foremost feature is to increase the efficiency through a system of recruitment, pre-service and in- service training of best minds thus making it a permanent career. A single chain of command ensures the hierarchy in this organisation with last in the ladder brought under full control of the highest in chain. To provide public accountability and avoid personal equations coming to the fore, it is bound by well- defined procedural codes, rules and other paraphernalia, popularly known as ‘red tape’. Thus it represents the traditional dichotomy between politics and administration. Though it is under the direct control of political leaders, the officials can neither canvass for any party nor can they contest by themselves. As a German sociologist Max Weber has said, it is the most rational and advanced type of administration where all important relationships are defined in advance, and the pyramid of authority is partitioned horizontally into levels of responsibilities.
“Nothing practically moves in administration, unless one has the influence or money or both. Those, who do not possess these virtues of the modern world, are at the receiving end.“
With all its highly evolved features, this exposes the inevitable fallacies that draw public wrath and acrimony of the elite. Though it is characterised by expertness, impartiality and discipline, the feature most conspicuous by its absence is the absence of humanity. Due to too much of self-importance and an obsession with the binding and inflexible authority of departmental decisions, there has been an indifference towards the feelings of individual citizens. Various features like a mania for rules and formal procedure – the formalism which makes the official wooden – make the bureaucrat lose his sense of judgment and initiative. Though red tape correctly used is the symbol of citizen’s equality before the law, the dogged attachment to precedents defeats the whole purpose of equality. And the famous circumlocution roundabout and a preoccupation with activities of particular units of administration and an inability to consider the Government, as a whole, are definitely the result of a failure to recognise the relations between the governors and the governed as an essential process of democracy. Routine procedures breed inflexibility and red-tapism while a passion for accountability foster efficiency and quickness. As Burke succinctly puts it, “They will think the substance of business not to be much more important than the forms of it.”
Moreover, in a democracy, it is the public which is supreme and the administration is supposed to fulfil the aspirations of the public. But generally, administrators view people as illiterate, ignorant, resourceless, incapable of initiative and action and unable to understand the rules and procedures as well as the requirements and complexities of modern administration. On the other hand, the general feeling in the minds of the public is that bureaucrats are concerned more with the satisfaction of their personal goals than the goals of a democratic welfare State. It is also assumed that bureaucracy at the middle and lower levels is more inefficient, corrupt and ill-equipped to respond effectively to the requirements and needs of the citizens.
In developing countries like India, the powers of bureaucracy are increasing as a necessary concomitant of planned and democratic development. The chances that these powers may be misused have increased manifold. With the level of education and economic power of major chunk of citizens still very low, the chances of abuse or misuse of power and discretion vested in the administration are assumed to be fairly large. On the other hand, even if a citizen makes an unreasonable demand on the administration which cannot be responded, he may put the entire blame on the administration. As ethos of the mob predicts, the fellow citizens pitch in their voices in accusing administration. There will be a widespread belief in official apathy and indifference to public grievances.
Nothing practically moves in administration, unless one has the influence or money or both. Those, who do not possess these virtues of the modern world, are at the receiving end. They get disillusioned with the system and the political backing and finally with the government itself. The ideological differences ultimately lead to violence, arson and bloodshed as witnessed in recent few years.
But there is always the other side. The welfare of people is always relegated to the back burner and the few wielding political power are looking after their vested interests. As the recent dictum by one politician goes: ‘Corrupt politicians can be tolerated if corruption does not go beyond 60%’. This shows the disturbing trend in the moral framework of the rulers who are supposed to be the torch-bearers of the people, leading them into the glorious paths of development and prosperity. Corruption became the necessary evil in every field of life. today bureaucrats have to function in an environment which is neither healthy nor conducive for efficient functioning. While political malpractices demoralise the bureaucrats, the political pressures make the life difficult for them. No wonder, they fail to function in an impartial manner and become unresponsive to public opinion.
Various measures have been proposed to curtail the authority of bureaucrats. Decentralisation of power is a potent check on their increasing authority. It can prevent the secondary offshoots like remoteness, complacency, ignorance of local conditions, etc. Further it is also suggested that the Parliament and the Union Cabinet should control the bureaucracy through steps like forming administrative tribunals to judge complaints about civil servants by citizens. The bureaucracy should be made representative of various social and economic classes. That makes it completely integrated in the community and then there should be an effective continuous system of communication between rulers and the governed. The bureaucrats have to develop effective understanding with the hoi polloi. There should be a professional morale antipathetic to bureaucratic rigidity.
This is the age of Welfare State. The concept of Welfare State implies provision of basic services like health, education, sanitation, human rights, closer communication between the people and government. Such a process, if desired to be smooth, has to consider bureaucrats more than as just the links that fill the gap between citizens and the State. Thus it increases the points of contact between citizens and officials. For this requires a change in administrative attitude towards the citizens. The excessive adherence to rules and precedents is to be replaced by genuine concern for the ends they have to achieve – the public welfare. A soulless efficiency killed the Roman empire in ancient times and the British empire in our times.
Public administration of a country is considered good, if it can motivate and mobilise the citizens in favour of its programmes and policies and; secondly, if it can satisfy the citizens by efficient supervision of those activities. For this, bureaucracy has to shed the armour of formalism, legalism, red-tape and such things while the public has to be relieved of its prejudice. Otherwise, as is the rule, the gap between the citizen’s expectations and the administrative performance always exists and the relationship between them is characterised by suspicion and mutual hostility. As an outcome of this mutual hostility, neither the administration can get full cooperation of the citizens nor the citizen would be able to get efficient services from the administration. The automation and innovative services offered
by latest advances in technology are to be applied in place of redundant services. It may cost, but not as much the time that is wasted.
Therefore, it is vital that this gap be narrowed down as much as possible and the feelings of mutual distrust and hostility be converted to trust and goodwill, it cannot be achieved by the famous ‘educate the public’ slogan or any moral homily. Over a period of time, through perseverance and awareness in bureaucracy on the public welfare, the only reason it has been created for, the bonds are to be forged. The lesser the areas of tension between them, the greater will be the cooperation from the public which then stops viewing the bureaucracy with coloured eyes and the result is, if not autopian Welfare State, at least the nearest to it.
But, the best course, in my view, is to make simple law free of any ambiguities, and Right of Information to people ever on payment. Laws are not publicised, nor discussed on electronic media to educate the masses. Everything is purposely kept secret. A person is sent property tax demand or telephone or electricity bill, by ordinary mail, and if by the courtesy of postal department he does not receive these demands, he faces penalties, why can’t arrange to send these demands under registered cover through couriers. Further, there is no standard yardstick to assess property tax. Why can’t government appoint qualified architects to do this job instead of matriculate basis who are after their pounds of flesh, twisting rules at their whims. And why stenographers are promoted as Assistant/Deputy collectors (Assessment in property tax matters without a formal competitive exam open to all persons).