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The outdated nature of bureaucracy

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May 22, 2021

What is the issue?

  • Despite the efforts of all public institutions, bureaucracy has emerged as a major concern for the ineffective response to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • This inadequacy is the reflection of the outdated nature of public bureaucracy, and its high time that bureaucracy is overhauled.

How does traditional bureaucracy work?

  • In the 21st century, democratic countries are still relying on traditional bureaucracies.
  • They perform primarily the public policy formulation and implementation roles.
  • This traditional bureaucracy/Weberian bureaucracy still prefers a generalist over a specialist.
  • A generalist officer (IAS and State civil service officials) is deemed an expert and as a result, a superior.
  • Traditional bureaucracy is still stuck with the leadership of position over leadership of function.
  • Under this, bureaucracy has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
  • Further, the rigid adherence to rules has resulted in the rejection of innovation.

How has it performed during the COVID-19 crisis?

  • Under the above structure, specialists in every government department have to remain subordinate to the generalist officers.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this weakness.
  • Healthcare professionals who are specialists have been made to work under generalist officers.
  • The policy options have been left to the generalists when they should be in the hands of the specialists.
  • The justification was that the generalist provides a broader perspective compared to the specialist.
  • Also, under rigid adherence to rules, COVID-19 aid got stuck in cumbersome clearance processes even during the pandemic.

What is the alternative ?

  • Leadership of function is when a person has expert knowledge of a particular responsibility in a particular situation.
  • The role of the leader is to explain the situation instead of issuing orders.
  • Every official involved in a particular role responds to the situation.
  • They do not rely on some dictation from someone occupying a particular position.

Is New Public Management the right choice?

  • The reform often suggested in India is new public management (NPM).
  • NPM as a reform movement promotes privatisation and managerial techniques of the private sector.
  • This is seen as an effective tool to seek improvements in public service delivery and governance.
  • But this is not a viable solution, not the least in India where there is social inequality and regional variations in development.
  • It renders the state a bystander among the multiple market players with accountability being constantly shifted, especially during a crisis.
  • COVID-19 too has shown that the private sector has also failed in public service delivery.

What is appropriate for India?

  • The most appropriate administrative reform is the model of new public governance.
  • This model is based on collaborative governance.
  • Here, the public sector, private players and civil society, especially public service organisations (NGOs), work together for effective public service delivery.
  • There is no domination of public bureaucracy as the sole agency in policy formulation and implementation.
  • As part of new public governance, a network of social actors and private players would take responsibility in various aspects of governance.

What is the way forward?

  • During the pandemic, the civil society is playing a major role in saving lives.
  • As part of new public governance, this role has to be institutionalised.
  • It needs a change in the behaviour of bureaucracy, through -
  1. flexibility in hierarchy
  2. a relook at the generalist versus specialist debate
  3. an openness to reforms such as lateral entry and collaboration with a network of social actors
  • All major revolutions with huge implications on public service delivery have come through the collaboration of public bureaucracy with so-called outsiders.
  • These include the Green Revolution (M.S. Swaminathan), the White Revolution (Verghese Kurien), Aadhaar-enabled services (Nandan Nilekani) and the IT revolution (Sam Pitroda).
  • It is high time that India understands New public governance as the future of governance, especially public service delivery.


Source: The Hindu

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