Positions are being treated as private property

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Dec 10 2005, 05:43am hrs
The number of positionsministerial, professional, managerial or civil serviceis always very few compared to the multitude of aspirants. But once occupied most of such positions become monopolies and properties on lease. Among contract labour there is even a practice of selling ones position to another, which hopefully is not yet happening among ministers and civil servants.

But several ministers and civil servants refuse to vacate official residences, try hanging on to good positions and misuse their offices. The attitude is that the position has been bestowed by divine grace and is meant to be enjoyed. In the days of monarchies, people were given positions at the will of the ruler and not always according to capabilities. There had been tacit understanding that the incumbent may enjoy the positional power and also profit from it. To maintain this property, he is expected to show loyalty to the benefactor by periodically sharing the loot with the ruler as gift, nazrana, et al. (The evident problem for Bhakta Ramdas was that as tehsildar, he collected money but neither gave it to the exchequer nor to the Nizam and instead constructed a temple!)

Individuals tend to treat their employment as property and not as trust, duty or even a contract. This, indeed, is the behavioural assumption behind the debates on rent-seeking or directly unproductive profit-seeking activities initiated by Anne Krueger and Jagdish Bhagwati respectively: that a public servant is no different from any other individual in pursuing self-interests and would normally create all bureaucratic conditions that perpetuate his interest than work for social good. No wonder bureaucracy thrives, despite the wisdom, education and intelligence of the incumbents. With the indulgence of the readers, one may recall the statement made by Bradley Patterson, president of the American Society for Public Administration, in response to an earlier comment by President Carters Budget director, who described the traditional civil servants as buried in the bowels of bureaucracy. Patterson reportedly said, Now, I am not a doctor, but I know a four-letter word for what is typically buried in the bowels. Lest managers are unduly amused, corporations are no less affected by self-interested bureaucracy.

Corporate positions are used to control and distribute jobs, purchase orders, consulting assignments, event sponsorships, distribution agencies, transport contracts, etc by limiting information and controlling competition. Corporate managers appear to also enjoy enhancing their credibility, status, publicity and presence by speaking at events sponsored with company money. The costs at which managerial reputations are promoted are eventually borne by shareholders.

Individuals treat their employment as property and not as a trust
The contracts of duties and responsibilities have to be made clear and enforced
We need thinking on mechanisms to ensure this is effectively done
Unfortunately, most positions are indeed monopolies as long as the incumbent occupies it. There is no effective market for it, due to reasons of exit-entry barriers. And, hence, no evident contestability, as may be evident for other service providers. Thus, if any public servant is not discharging his responsibilities diligently or suddenly becomes the romantic Radha of a Krishna, removal is a long-drawn affair. We also do not as yet have a recall system for public representatives.

An obvious solution is to make the contracts of employment, duties, obligations and responsibilities tighter and clearer and enforce these effectively. It implies re-engineering the service rules and evolving a comprehensive system of automatic fines and disincentives that do not necessarily become fodder for administrative tribunals and courts. This is possible only if the government shows determination, as the incumbents cannot be expected to shoot themselves in the foot.

If the government were to find the will, it is worthwhile to adopt (a) the hard approach of revising the contracts and their management comprehensively and (b) the soft approach of attempting to change attitudes. The Nolan principles the code of conduct, induction and training in these aspects in the UKare indeed a pointer. The principles elaborate on selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. There are also new mechanisms adopted for monitoring and scrutiny of public officials and their conduct. It is certainly a difficult task to make public servants suddenly think of service values, tearing away from decades of belief and social expectations that they are meant to enjoy the benefits of the divine endowment. This is indeed the heart of the challenge to administrative reform.