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Guaranteeing public service

Or how not to be Asia's worst civil service

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

The government proposes to bring before Parliament a civil service Bill which, if it fulfils its aims, can have far-reaching consequences. It seeks to address some of the key shortcomings that have bedevilled the country’s administration by introducing an evaluation system for civil servants that has a bearing on the way the department or programme has performed. The proposed system seeks to protect the civil servant from political interference, and visualises a central public service authority which will administer the system and deliver appropriate working conditions for civil servants while holding them accountable. What is new is that the members of this authority will not be selected by the government of the day but by a committee comprising the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition and a Supreme Court judge. A key element in the new system will be security of tenure for civil servants, who will not be transferred arbitrarily; proper reasons will have to be given if someone is shifted from a post before time.

While the ideas seem to be worthwhile as far as they go, they seem designed more to protect civil servants than to make sure that they do their job properly. Accountability to the public has to be ensured, in a measurable manner, with proper feedback systems. The Bill envisages that the minister and the civil service head will agree on a set of targets to be achieved, and performance will be evaluated on the basis of these targets. During the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, the British government introduced a system of giving public-facing government departments public charters which laid down what they were supposed to deliver and in return gave the leadership of the departments substantial autonomy to achieve the goals. If after evaluation a department was found wanting, it could face the ignominy of losing its charter. Under the charter system the public knew what to expect, the evaluation was transparent and the outcome known.

It is necessary to build in proper feedback loops. For example, as a traveller clears immigration in China he comes upon a monitor that requests him to evaluate his immigration experience. It is also necessary to devise delivery systems which reduce the scope for human arbitrariness—a serious problem in areas like tax administration. This is much easier now with the use of information technology. A beginning has been made with the electronic filing of income tax returns, but much more needs to be done before India can hope to lose its bottom-of-the-table ranking when it comes to civil services across Asia.

First Published: Tue, June 09 2009. 00:04 IST