Putting up with babucracy

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Monitored by the  out-tray and anxious about what’s going into their ACRs, the  bureaucrats don’t have to give a damn about how much work’s being  actually done.

By Jagdish Sagar

In the 1930s, David Symington, ICS, left the glories of district administration to be a deputy secretary. A peon explained to him: “When a file is finished, put it down on the other side; I will take it away”. The first file, “Indent for Office Stationery”, was two inches thick, but the last note read: “As per usual. May be approved.” He initialed it where it said “Deputy Secretary” and heard a satisfying “bang” as it fell to the floor. The next one, four inches thick, was “Volume of Official Correspondence, Measures to Reduce”…

Some four decades later, deep in the bowels of North Block, I found myself at the same game, and it’s still played today. It doesn’t matter if one file is about an indent for pencils and the next one about a declaration of war, you take them up one by one and, after such ratiocination and literary effort as you feel inclined to put in, sign it and hear that satisfying sound as it drops to
the floor.

The system monitors you by your disposal of files and replies to letters, not by whether you actually get anything done or whether your letters say anything useful, and you’ll go home with the sense of a good day’s work done if you’ve dropped everything that found its way to your table into that out-tray on the floor. If you are, say, an IAS officer you can handle any job anywhere in the country no matter how lazy you are: there’s a huge, employment-intensive industry of “putting up” files and letters for your approval. It’s usually safe to sign and pass it on, downwards or upwards. Now, if the file is going upwards, and if you’re clever and enterprising, have ideas of your own, or would just like to earn brownie points, you can summarize the whole history of the thing, add your own spin, and put up a “self-contained note”; you will be appreciated for simplifying your bosses’ task.

Over a hundred years ago, Lord Curzon described a file that took 10 years doing the rounds before it landed on his table. Each contributor wanted to shine, score a point, show that he was contributing. That’s still the case: One of the denizens of North Block in the 1970s was a joint secretary (JS) sitting on top of a brilliant deputy secretary (DS), who would write splendid “self-contained” notes; JS would send the file back repeatedly with sundry questions and comments, which poor DS would keep clarifying until his original note was buried under a few dozen pages. JS would then write DS’s note and put it up to the Secretary as his own.

The file can metamorphose with successive contributions: someone sends it back to the putter-up with a slightly irrelevant query, starting off a catena of notes that take the file further and further from its original subject, like the game in which each child in a circle whispers something to the next, and then you compare what the first one said with what the last one heard.

Anyway, it is usually the Minister —rightly so—or someone who has the Minister’s confidence, who decides what needs to be done. A Minister who wants to get something done (good or bad) picks people who will make sure it happens, and anyway there’ll be a scramble to keep the Minister happy: the one safeguard against the inertia of the bureaucracy is its obsequiousness in putting up what the boss wants to read. For what the boss isn’t bothered about, or doesn’t know about, the files will keep going up and down and round and round.

Again, those who do actually get things done have often had to invest time and effort in window dressing to make sure the file will look okay for the record: the noting side of the file might almost become a work of fiction. And again, those below you, cautiously, cussedly or downright mischievously, may compel you to overrule them, which can be a risk: someone will assume you were up to no good, or why should you have taken the trouble? Or your subordinates might simply refer the file laterally to someone else, who will refer it to someone else, and so on ad infinitum: there may be little you can do to retrieve the file without looking “interested” in it.  (It can be fatal to be described as “interested” in anything.)

At the turn of this century, as Minister of State for (among other things) administrative reforms, Arun Shourie wrote a hilarious and revealing account of files that had come his way. But being a journalist, he hadn’t a clue what to do about it: he seemed simply to have been scoring the point that journalists are brighter than babus (which—dare I say it?—might not be true.)

However, there are always tired old remedies around. In 2005 the Second Adminis-trative Reforms Commission, headed by Veerappa Moily, recommended:“The Manual of Office Procedure emphasizes the importance of processes, but its stipulations are largely related to file management and recordkeeping. In practice, this has therefore meant dilution of the intended focus on outcomes… The commission feels that this can be remedied by each Department specifying its key objective. … the introduction of a performance management system in the Government. This would ensure a built-in evaluation system to assess the quality of decision making.”

Not a single original thought, a rehash of what’s been said hundreds of times, the jaded argot of “administrative reform”. It’s obviously true that the bureaucracy is process-oriented: but the answer isn’t simply to natter on about fixing objectives and the chimera of a “built-in evaluation system”. Why not, for starters, just improve the process?

The Government , after all, isn’t a company with a bottom-line to measure performance. It’s usually impossible to measure the quality of work in the secretariat by specifying objectives: for example nobody may worry too much, at the time, whether a piece of legislation or a central scheme is thoughtfully drafted. Much is done in haste because the Government wants to score a point or look like it’s doing something: we’ll discover later how ill-considered it all was, and by then the persons responsible will have moved on with their “outstanding” ACRs (annual confidential reports). Objective achieved.

Again, the serial noting system is tied up with a particular administrative structure: a “Section ” at the bottom—a dingy place full of dog-eared files and industrious clerks—which is the starting point and ultimate home of all files; its original note goes up through the hierarchy, each level pushing it on, adding its wisdom or referring it back down (ultimately to the Section, from where it commences its upward journey once more.) Nor is this genuinely participative: a “putter-up”, who may be the only person who has seriously studied the question, may never get a chance to correct some appalling bloomer in what eventually goes to the Minister. One of the working groups set up by the first Administrative Reforms Commi-ssion in the 1960s did actually describe the absurdity of this system and suggested several alternative ways of doing things. None of this found any mention in the Report of the Administrative Reforms Commission that came out in 1966, and the topic has never been broached since. The way things are is simply too comfortable. Even the Govern-ment’s IT wing, the National Informatics Centre (NIC), merely comes up with systems to track and monitor the movement of files; no one has the imagination to put technology to any better use.

The most obvious possible reform is a “broadcast” method: the deciding level for any particular decision circulates either a position paper or a draft letter or cabinet note or whatever to all those concerned simultaneously on an intranet (regardless of hierarchical level), takes all their inputs (it’ll be presumed they’ve agreed if they don’t meet a deadline) and finalizes the document; perhaps, if it’s complicated, after a second or third round. No notes, just comments and tracked changes to drafts. Something like that would actually be more transparent, more participative; it would force people to learn their jobs and stretch their brains rather than just pushing the file on with a bit of casual wisdom; it might compel senior people to learn how to use Word; and it could replace the section with a database.

That’s no panacea—there never is one, for the bureaucracy—but it’s a low hanging fruit that no one wants to bite.

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