governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Naveen Patnail’

Protecting Babus From Politicians


The Supreme Court has struck yet another blow for democracy by protecting babus from politicians. Not bad in itself, but puzzling, in the context of the larger objective of protecting democracy.

Democracy is all about citizens electing politicians to manage the “commons” and regulate the markets. A babu is merely an “ahlu” in the sabzi; employed as a technician to work objectively with any elected government, irrespective of ideology, translating broad political objectives into policy options and implementing the ensuing policy. It is the test of the ballot which legitimates the politicians. Babus merely facilitate the task of governance and in return they are assured a cradle to grave job with pension.

It is not trivial to answer the question what ails the Indian babu today and how her concerns can be met. The SC has identified four key areas for redressal.

First, the SC has directed that the minimum, normal tenure should be three years, which is undoubtedly, wise. The apprehension however, is that for every honest and committed babu who uses this protection to implement the rule of law, there will be multiple others, who would instead use it as a formal confirmation of their colonial “right to rule” and the powerlessness of “topiwallahs”.

Fixed tenures can be effective, as intended, but only if they are accompanied by direct oversight of citizens in assessing babu performance. A District Magistrate has the right to demand a fixed tenure but only if she is willing to seek an annual endorsement of her performance from all the elected representatives of the District. If however, babus are wary of citizen review, they cannot simultaneously, shy away from the direct control of the elected government of the day.

Second, the SC directed that no babu should henceforth act on a verbal order. Clearly the intention was to create a paper trail for audit of decision making. A good thing in itself. But consider that Ministers, across political parties, now routinely act on verbal orders from party bosses. Even the Cabinet of India was caught acting hastily on the verbal and very public outburst of a party supremo. Can we really expect a Minister, herself acting on verbal orders, to respect the “written orders only” rule while dealing with babus?

More importantly, the relationship between a politician and her babu is often, though not always, a very intimate one. This is as it should be. The rough and tumble of an effective democratic system cannot be managed, without a measure of trust and faith between the Minister and her babu. Cutting this symbiotic cord between the two, would be suicidal for effective governance. Imagine District Magistrate, Krishna Kumar, the hero of Ganjam, asking Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to write all his orders in triplicate, even in the raging fury of a cyclone.

Verbal orders that do not go against the public interest are a non-issue. Those that do not align with public interest can be subverted, as they have always been, using the legendary guile that babus develop. If even this is not possible, the option is always available to follow E.A.S. Sarma’s advice and “step aside when it is impossible to decide in public interest”.

Third, the SC has directed that babu management be outsourced to an “independent” commission to insulate the process from “political” influence. This merely restates what already exists. Initial recruitment is already done by the Public Service Commissions and other Subordinate Service Selection Commissions. Promotions are already done by a committee of senior officers who record written orders. In the case of the All India Services, the UPSC has to approve before disciplinary action can be initiated. Many already believe Indian babus are too cosseted by protective legislation. If despite all this protection, babus still feel threatened; outsourcing their promotion, postings and transfers to yet another “independent” commission is unlikely to help. It will however create additional post-retirement babu sinecures.

Instead, to build a meritocracy, we should do away with the anachronistic “cradle to grave” employment system. Every position in the officer grade of undersecretary and above should be widely advertised for open competition and filled on contract, for five years, by the related Public Service Commission. The concept of time bound, seniority based promotion must die, if babudom is to survive.

Fourth, the SC has directed that government legislate a law for babu management, in the hope that this shall introduce transparence, equity and performance orientation. The last thing India needs is another law. We already have more than 1200 laws. Our belief, that legislation can solve problems in public management, is deeply misplaced. The international experience is that legislation, unless backed by deeply entrenched norms and social capital, is ineffective in changing babu behavior.

Africa and East Asia are littered with civil service laws, but the actual performance, in managing graft and protecting the poor is, at best, on par with India. Whilst out babus do need to shape up, consider that India runs a pretty tight ship. We employ barely 3% (17.5 million) of our labour force (650 million) in government (including central, state, municipality, police and the army). Compare this with the most developed OECD countries, Norway 29%, France 21%, UK 17%, US 15%, Japan 7% and Brazil 9%, South Africa 9%, (ILO data 2008). Yes, our public services don’t match up to OECD standards, but neither do the resources we spend on them. Our teeth to tail ratios are poor and the comparison would be even starker if we consider the proportion of professionals employed in government.

The SC has never failed, in public interest, to fill the gap created by executive inaction. But the law is not a substitute for effective, executive decision making, which requires the ability to play with the grey scales of the real world. The law is a black and white discipline, quite unlike life. Public Human Resource Management is not an area of comparative advantage for the SC, as evidenced by the judiciary’s record on this score. Those who live in glass houses must not cast stones.

Babu-traps 101


Are scams babu made? If a “competent authority” is hell bent on making money, generally, there is very little babus, even honest ones, can do to stop them. But many “scams” are just the outcomes of poor decision making and in these babus cannot escape the blame.

Personal honesty is never more than, at best, a mitigating circumstance when poor decisions are made whilst discharging the obligations of high public office. Effective babus are those who take decisions which neither get them, or anyone else, into trouble. Decisions in government, especially commercial ones, are never a routine application of rules. That is the job of the CAG, CVC and CBI. A routine application of rules actually ensures that no decision is ever taken. Yes, we should have better rules of course but then the same goes for our un-implementable laws. The law is an ass and shall remain so. Public decision making must go on.

The job of the effective public decision maker is to first carefully think through a “decision tree”. Text book, best practice methods require working down a “decision tree” with a decision arrived at as a last step. This stuff is only for consultants to remain perpetually employed. Effective public decision makers (as opposed to researchers) know the decision they need to make in public interest. The problem usually is how to get there.

When citizens were at risk from the cyclone in Ganjam, Orissa, Naveen Patnaik and his team knew what they had to do, as did the Government of Delhi and the Government of India, when the Commonwealth Games had to be hastily put together in the last few months. Both events passed successfully. The fall out for babus however, comes later and depends on the strength of the supporting decision tree analysis and actions taken.

Once we know what is to be decided the effective-public-decision-maker works backwards, up (not downwards as in best practice) the decision tree. The Effective Babu Decision Tree (EBDT) looks like this:

(1) Work out which sequential set of rules will bar you from taking and implementing the decision.

(2) Determine which of the following “Acceptable Rule Diluting Tools” (ARDT) are to be employed to surmount the obstacles: (a) Creation of a committee to dilute individual blame, build consensus and inter ministry commitment for the decision. (b) Legal precedents (opinion of Law Ministry) which could dilute the impact of the obstructive rule or differentiate its application away from the decision in question. (c) Identify potential regulatory vacuum, where no rules exist and fill this in with best practice application of the basic principles of competition, equity and transparency (d) Employ neutral third party experts to define best practice (eg. what should be the rate of discount while present valuing a future stream of revenue?)

(3) Always record a speaking order/note, carefully outlining why a particular decision is in public interest and indeed is the most feasible decision under the circumstances. Please note shortage of time, overload of work, cost of analysis not done, reliance on out of date or incomplete analysis, or the fact that your superior has asked you, whether in writing or verbally, to decide in a particular manner are poor and indeed no defense from personal blame.

(4) Look carefully at the set of actors who would support and oppose that decision and their relative “voice” in the media and on the streets.

(5) Tweak the decision to reduce the “spoilers” or “nay sayers” to the minimum, thereby reducing opposition.

Sounds logical doesn’t it. Why then doesn’t it happen routinely?

Five key babu traps operate to subvert the process.

First, most Mantris and babus are lazy or under work pressure, they neglect to record detailed “speaking orders/notes” which literally speak for themselves and are unambiguous. Failure to follow through the tedious decision tree process described earlier is fatal. This trap can be avoided. This is illustrated by the record of Arun Shourie, the Sun Tzu (author of the masterful Chinese classic: The Art of War) of India, as Minister Disinvestment from 1999 to 2004. He and his team of babus; Pradip Baijal, Pradeep Bhide, P.K.Basu and Amitabh Bhattacharya privatized Modern Foods, BALCO, HTL, CMC, VSNL, Paradeep Phosphates, HZL, IPCL and a bunch of publicly owned hotels even in the face of lack of popular support within the BJP. With the coming to power of UPA I in 2004 the “oversight wallahs” (CAG, CVC, CBI) took over with their “forensic audits” and tried desperately to find fault. The privatization team, Minister downwards, was personally clean as a whistle. This certainly helped. More importantly, the team, shepherded by the Minister, had been so diligent and wily in negotiating the EBDT that no institutional or personal, adverse comments could be made and the entire disbanded babu team went on to higher office.

Second, an astonishingly high number of babus fall into the “complacency ” trap of thinking that when a decision is reverted to them by a superior authority for a rethink,  they have already done their bit on file and the rethink on superior guidance, distances them personally from the outcome of the rethink. This clearly is contrary to EBDT rule 3 above. The buck always stops with you for what you have written on file. Citizens expect each babu in the decision making chain (usually there are three to four), to independently record their own opinion so that when the file reaches the “competent authority” she can benefit from the string of babu opinions.

Third, babus often fall into the trap of “domain inconsistency”. This includes independently rethinking and changing a decision, taken previously by a committee. This violation of the sanctity of committee work can spell trouble. Once you have created a committee to take a decision, any rethink must be reverted to that very same body. Even if a babu chaired the committee, she cannot abrogate to herself the right, or buckle under, to directions to personally rethink the original decision, which rightfully belongs to all the committee members. Remember, time pressure is no defense against violation of the basic principles of participation and transparency.

Fourth, babus often subvert their “high formal obligations” to their “low informal status” in Mantri-oriented ministries. They succumb to the “shock and awe effect” of directions from superiors. This is traceable to excessive interference by the Advisers in a Mantri’s office, public disenchantment with babus and systematic media “downgrading and disregard”. Recently a senior editor referred to a Joint Secretary, GOI- a position regarded in babu circles as the fulcrum of government, as a “middle level officer”.

Lastly retirement, especially from natural resource, Finance, Trade and Industry related Ministries, opens up mouth-watering options. The most correct and honest babu may, after a long 35 year, largely thankless career, spent protecting the public interest whilst practicing relative austerity at home, become susceptible to seeking a little material happiness. Whilst self-restraint and sensitivity to optics, is advisable, post retirement, golden parachutes are a trifling issue, if EBDT is religiously followed whilst in service.

The good news is that millions of babus in local government, district administration, state government secretariats and central government ministries religiously and successfully follow the EBDT in public interest during service and live happy and productive post-retirement lives. An efficient babu personnel management system would ensure that only the “greats” in the “efficient babu index” rise to the top. In its absence, too many of those who actively collaborate to subvert public interest or those who stoically remain personally clean, but succumb to being institutionally compliant, rise to the top. Neither category is of much use in taking decisions whilst avoiding scams.

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