Public Administration

For crafting credible systems

Print edition : September 20, 2013

An upper primary school in Alinaqipalem in Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh. It is vital that the state implements entitlements in spirit, not just in form, so that they reach the people. Photo: C.H. Vijaya Bhaskar

For inclusive growth, India needs public systems that can deliver in education and health care. These can be built by restructuring our civil service to make it more accountable to the people.

JEAN DREZE and Amartya Kumar Sen’s new book on India’s uncertain glory has rightly received a lot of attention in the media. The Bhagwati-Sen debate notwithstanding, no one can argue against a development paradigm that is inclusive, a paradigm that allows every individual to develop her/his potential to the fullest. While growth is needed to generate resources, the real challenge is in translating the gains of growth into higher trajectories of human development and skill formation and economic activity of a higher order. Education and health form the bedrock of any effort at inclusion, as it is these sectors that finally determine whether an individual can break “social reproduction”.

A school is an institution that breaks the bondage of an agricultural labourer’s son/daughter from becoming an agricultural labourer. Good health facilitates improved performance in school and the learning process. It is for this reason that Dreze and Sen need to be taken very seriously by Indian policymakers. Human development thrust is good for sustaining economic growth as well. Dreze and Sen, while highlighting the need for effective public systems, do not dwell at length on how credible public systems can be crafted. They do point out global evidence and a few State-specific examples of public systems providing quality education and health services.

The Durga Shakti case in Uttar Pradesh has come up at the same time, raising issues of how the civil service, mandated with strengthening public systems, is managed. Each failure of the public system naturally raises a hue and cry on how it is impossible to set the public system right and how India’s civil service has failed the nation. Civil service has become a dirty word in the eyes of many courts of law, the media, public commentators, and people’s representatives.

Never before has the public perception of the bureaucracy been so low. Every disclosure of the Comptroller and Auditor General further erodes the faith in the system. Surely the time has come for a second coming, as “the worst are seen as full of passionate intensity and the best lack all conviction”. There are still a very large number of civil servants whose conduct, ability, integrity and competence will match the best in any profession. It is that core of dedicated civil servants that needs to lead the process of change.

Is it possible to craft a credible public system? It is the subject matter of my recent book An India for Everyone (HarperCollins, 2013), which was released by Amartya Sen in February 2013. Given the global evidence of public systems delivering universal quality education and health services, we have no option but to craft a credible, efficient, outcome-focussed, quality public system. Analysis shows that it is not an impossible task. Governance and skill deficits will have to be firmly dealt with if one is serious about an inclusive India.

India has an essentially regulatory administrative system, a colonial legacy. Development is sought to be carried out through this essentially public order, revenue, regulation machinery. States such as Tamil Nadu with its unique public health cadre or Kerala with its well-evolved panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) or Himachal Pradesh with its State-wide thrust on universal primary education have devised ways of making the public system deliver better education and health services.

The structural changes that are needed in the character of the civil service to meet the human development priorities are still weak, though there is a large pool of civil servants with long experience in the sector. The state needs to strengthen the civil services’ ability to deliver entitlements of households to education, health, nutrition, clean water, sanitation and public hygiene. This requires crafting of institutional partnerships with PRIs and community organisations that can make the civil service accountable to the people.

Removing governance deficits

First, the civil service in India will have to remove the governance deficits that seem to mar its existence. Transparent policies of transfer, posting and promotion done professionally, respect for dissent, zero tolerance for corruption in high places, assessment on outcomes rather than non-performance, and clearly articulated performance standards for every individual and institution are required. The civil service must set its house in order by coming up with a clear policy against corruption and non-performance. The constitutional safeguards are for conduct as per rules and not a licence for the indefensible. It has to be clarified to the political executive that principles, not personal preferences, will have to be the basis for transparent transfer and posting. Independent civil and police formations need to be set up, by as transparent and participatory public service-oriented principles as possible, to move towards a crackdown on corruption. No country can afford a low public image of the bureaucracy. To restore faith in institutions, swift action needs to be taken against individuals who destroy their sanctity. The civil service needs to look within to get rid of the black sheep.

Second, it is time to bring in professional skills by lateral entry at decision-making levels, especially in education and health sectors. More public health specialists, educationists, professional managers, cost and chartered accountants, and information technology professionals are needed in order to address the public management skill deficit. The Public Health Foundation of India, the Azim Premji Foundation and University, and Pratham have been demonstrating pathways towards professionalisation of the workforce. The government needs to recruit more managers rather than magistrates for human development. Tenures in the social sector need to be rethought as change needs concerted and continuous leadership at State, district and sub-district levels for a minimum of five to seven years. Let there be a purposive selection of leaders at various levels for the social sector with clear deliverables. Let the team have a clear mandate, resources and delegation to deliver. Let new and much-needed professional skills be brought in by lateral entries.

Third, public recruitment requires major reforms as job security of the employee should give way to service guarantee for those who rely on public services. Given the remote locations of employment, we may also need to develop local youth incrementally into better teachers and nurses. Teaching and nursing are two professions where India’s demographic dividend is going to be high and these need to be focussed on as a national priority. Indian nurses and teachers are already going global and the greater ageing population in the developed world will require an even greater movement of human development workers from a young India to meet global needs. The underemployed, low-skill economies of India’s poor regions need to become centres of skilled human resource.

The human development thrust will be able to address more frontally issues of regional inequality as well. Let us revisit many of our parameters on courses, recruitment, standards and regulation with an open mind. Good teachers and health workers will have to be developed incrementally and systematically and we may not have a situation where fully developed human development workers are available everywhere for serving over a million hamlets, villages, towns and cities. The Shiksha Karmi experiment in Rajasthan’s remote villages and the Jamkhed and Gadhchiroli experiments of Arole and Abhay Bang with community workers indicate the need for incrementally developing local community members as professionals, with rigorous and intensive capacity development support. Let not modern regulation block evidence-based decision-making, especially in the health sector where medical graduates’ professional organisations have an in-built distrust of community processes and paramedical worker skills and abilities. Evidence rather than pre-conceived notions should be the guide. Alternative teacher development and medical professional courses and curriculum should be explored as per our need rather than as per a given framework.

Fourth, the last-mile implementation needs to be worked out in fuller detail before launching any initiative. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and now food security delivery are likely to suffer if detailed planning is not done and professional arrangements are not worked out. The civil service conducts elections with grace and dignity as last-mile planning is done and implementation is carefully worked out with the constitutional oversight of the Election Commission. Such last-mile planning is needed to create a human development platform at the cutting edge and at higher levels as well so that synergies of interventions across sectors can be enhanced. The nation needs a National Human Development Council as a sub-council of the National Development Council, to give human development the thrust it needs. Chief Ministers of States discussing last-mile issues in such a forum will have an impact on the crafting of credible delivery arrangements. Human development should be monitored on the basis of quantifiable targets at the highest level.

Fifth, the state should implement any entitlement in its spirit rather than in its form and there has to be a willingness to put in the money that is required, with a long-term perspective. Under-funded schools and school meals and a meagre 1 per cent public expenditure on health will not give us the results that we are looking for. After all, a well-funded Kendriya Vidyalaya or a Navodaya Vidyalaya, or an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) or an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is an example of well-funded public institutions delivering quality education and health services.

While there is a case to have zero tolerance on corruption in any form, good schools and hospitals do not come for free. Investments are required for excellence as per accreditation and quality standards. There is a need to spell out clearly the entitlements to quality universal elementary education and universal health coverage and desist from initiatives that only serve to dilute the focus. Let the compliance be substantive.

Sixth, civil society cannot be seen as an adversary. It has to have a well-defined space in making public systems credible and in making poor households access its services. The Right to Information Act provides for a post-mortem. More open civil society partnerships are necessary even during the course of planning and implementation. The civil service in India can gain from more evidence-based studies by the best academic institutions on public system delivery and quality.

Seventh, panchayats and community organisations under the umbrella of panchayats, and organic habitation-level institutions under PRIs, ought to have command over funds, functions and functionaries. Creating the monopoly of executive authority without the participation of habitation-level community organisations can dilute the thrust on people’s participation of and ownership in PRIs. This is more an issue in over 60 per cent of India’s hamlets, where the average population is less than 1,000 persons and where a group of hamlets actually constitute a gram panchayat. Involvement of hamlet-level community organisations becomes necessary within the PRI framework.

More transparency needed

Eighth, procurement systems need to be fully transparent as they raise the maximum public outcry. There are examples of good systems like the Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation for the purchase of generic drugs and medical equipment. Such good practices need to be made mandatory in all States. Construction arrangements and estimates for civil works need total demystification so that common citizens can understand where and how money is spent in construction works. Similarly, public disclosure of all expenditures in a school meal at the school level will go a long way in building confidence in the school management committee. Mandatory public disclosure of fund utilisation in a form that common people can understand is the key to change.

It is possible to make the uncertain glory certain. It requires a restructuring of our civil service in a manner that it is accountable to the people it serves rather than the masters to whom it reports. The civil service needs to be a truly public service if inclusion is a priority on the national agenda. Education and health are the only way of breaking hierarchies and bridging inequalities. It is the only route to inclusive development.

Amarjeet Sinha is Secretary, Education, in Bihar government. The views expressed here are his own.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor