Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: No. 1 :: March 1998
Get Up and Get Over
As is true of all relationships, handling bureaucracy belongs to the realms of both science and art, encompassing what may be called the hardware and software aspects. This is because, on the one hand, bureaucracy is an impersonal entity, a machinery, a tool-kit, a body of systems and procedures, with its output determined by the nature and quality of input, running along a set course on pre-ordained lines. On the other, it is also a collective of human beings, each of whom is a bundle of emotions, feelings, urges and drives, representing a corpus of knowledge and expertise, governed by internal etiquette and protocol, bound by practices and precedents, responding to leadership and inspiration, and reacting to risks, retribution and rewards the same way as other human beings do. They too want to be thought well of, and they too are no less eager to contribute to people's welfare than their detractors outside, but are constrained to observe a certain prudence, propriety and probity imposed by the framework within which they have to function.
The most successful approach to bureaucracy is, therefore, one that makes allowances for its deterministic as well as human attributes. This must be based on the recognition that (a) no system of governance or organised activity can do without some minimum essential rules, procedures and paper-work; (b) government bureaucracy, in particular, is accountable to the society at large through the mediation of elected legislatures and cannot afford to be seen as partial or negligent; (c) bureaucrats are from the same cultural stock and social milieu as those outside; (d) an adversarial or holier-than-thou attitude towards them will do no good to their morale which is the mainspring of effectiveness and efficiency; (e) for the rigidities and complexities of the system, the bureaucrats are not to be blamed; and (f) their tendency to hedge stems from their fear of facing the ignominy of an audit objection, vigilance inquiry or police investigation which can ruin their reputation acquired from a life-time of public service.
Paradigm for citizen-bureaucrat interface
Here's a paradigm based on the above postulates designed for a constructive and friendly encounter between the citizen (including the corporate citizen) and an average bureaucrat (assuming that he is not corrupt, sadistic or abnormal):
(1) Help him to help you. This you can do by making sure that (i) your request conforms to existing rules and regulations; (ii) you have complied with all the prescribed formalities and conditions; (iii) it is in line with any precedents that can be cited; (iv) it does not oblige the bureaucrat to show any special favours.
(2) Think ahead and provide for the necessary lead time for completing the examination of any request. Submitting requests at the nick of time and hustling everyone for action only results in frustration on all sides.
(3) The mode of presentation is important. An average bureaucrat is flooded with phone calls, visitors, assignments and errands. They tear into him from all directions, and constantly disrupt his priorities. One has to be superhuman to be cool- headed in the midst of these distractions. Hence, the more crisp, concise and cogent the proposal, the less the demand it makes on his time and the greater the likelihood of its getting his best attention. If it can be made attractive and graphic taking advantage of information technology, all the better. Handing of a complicated proposal is best preceded by an oral presentation of the salient features at the appropriate level.
(4) In presenting a case to a government bureaucrat, all the cards must be placed on the table. Recourse to selective enumeration of facts, even if it be in the honest desire not to clutter up the proposal, can spell future misunderstanding, if the bureaucrat chances upon them on his own.
(5) Pestering and putting extraneous pressure (especially invoking the highest level even before making a formal proposal to the concerned functionary) should be avoided. This builds up resentment and resistance, leading to nitpicking queries and sometimes rejection. It is always easy for a bureaucrat to find plausible reasons to stonewall, which higher levels will hardly be in a position to over-rule. It is better to allow for a reasonable time before reverting to the subject by way of a reminder.
(6) Trust and courtesy beget both in return. It never pays to approach a bureaucrat, or anyone for that matter, in the spirit of "I am OK, you are not OK".
(7) Where a request has been denied, and the matter is taken up for reconsideration, the approach should be free from imputation of motives or intemperate language. Every person is to be presumed to have done his duty to the best of his ability. The aim should be to win him over by answering the objections to the point and/or advancing fresh arguments, where possible.
Politicians and bureaucrats
The interface of the bureaucrat is not just with the citizen. Ministers and members of various elective bodies too deal with bureaucracy at various levels to get things done. There is a built-in scope for the relations to sour in their case primarily for three reasons: (a) They are apt to throw their weight about and seek to browbeat or push around the bureaucrat; (b) Political compulsions and ignorance of administrative norms may drive them to press demands which are irregular, improper or injurious to public interest; and (c) Superciliousness and want of empathy on the bureaucrats' part may accentuate the clash of cultures.
The remedy, of course, lies in both sides being on guard against such lapses. In addition, there are useful lessons to be drawn from case studies of mutually reinforcing and highly productive relationship between the Minister and the civil servant. Notable examples which took the partnerships to historic peaks of achievement are: Jawaharlal Nehru, G.S.Bajpai, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and S.S.Bhatnagar (atomic energy and space research, network of laboratories for scientific and industrial research); Sardar Patel, Mr.V.Shankar and Mr.V.P.Menon (integration of states); Mr.C.Subramaniam, Mr.B.Sivaraman, Mr.S.Venkitaramanan, Mr.M.S.Sondhi, Dr.M.S.Swaminathan and Dr.V.Kurien (green and white revolutions, integrated rural development; steel and heavy electrical projects); Dr.B.C.Roy and Mr.S.N.Ray in West Bengal (all that is the State today).
Taken together, they throw light on the observance of the following principles in dealing with bureaucracy: (1) Total trust (2) Full delegation and support against criticism in the discharge of the duties in good faith by the civil servant (3) Inculcating team-spirit and constant mutual consultation with the Minister as number one among equals (4) Absolute independence to the civil servant to implement decisions without interference (5) Unhindered freedom to the civil servant to give frank expression to his point of view orally and in writing to the extent of opposing the Minister, when necessary (6) Complete autonomy in internal management of the department under the civil servant in respect of deployment of personnel, tenders, distribution of work etc.
Bureaucrats and economic reforms
Finally, it is necessary to deal with the accusation that government bureaucracy has been deliberately stalling economic reforms for fear of losing their stranglehold or due to other ulterior motives. How true is the near-unanimous condemnation of bureaucracy on this score? It must be noted that the charge against bureaucracy has been leveled mostly by foreign commentators. One should take account of the possibility of their view might being coloured by their impatience with the bureaucrats for exercising innate caution and prudence in the national interest in examining their proposals.
My talks with bureaucrats of various levels lead me to believe that they are in fact happy to shed the burden of regulations and controls which subjected them to tremendous pressures and harassing queries on the manner of using their discretion and judgment. Barring a few black sheep here and there, there is no ground to suppose that they as a class are out to derail the reforms process.
Some support for this conclusion is found in the fact that within the country, opinion among national chambers of commerce and industries, business persons and investors has been less strident. This is perhaps because, they are culturally more attuned to the ways of bureaucracy, having lived with it for so long with its good and bad points. They are also more aware than their foreign counterparts of the systemic straitjackets it suffers from. Hence they are better able to appreciate that as in every other aspect of human behaviour anywhere else in the world, the situation can never be wholly black or wholly white and there is always a grey area. After all is said and done, the old adage is still valid with full force: It is a bad workman who quarrels with his tools. So the onus is squarely on the leaders of political parties forming governments at the Centre and in the States who have to get their acts straight and formulate clear- cut and practicable public policies.