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Updated: June 29, 2013 01:45 IST

One barefoot step, a giant administrative leap

Vibhu Nayar
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GRASS ROOTS: Uttarakhand officials disbursing money to rescued pilgrims in Gauchar.
GRASS ROOTS: Uttarakhand officials disbursing money to rescued pilgrims in Gauchar.

In order to create maximum development value, the bureaucracy needs to bring changes at the bottom of the public service pyramid, the citizen’s first point of contact with the state

As the world observed U.N. Public Service Day on June 23, it was hard to miss the perfect storm brewing across the globe. Disenchantment with public service delivery has engulfed Brazil, Greece, Turkey and South Africa. Closer home, the disaster in Uttarakhand has highlighted the potential of public service to make or mar thousands of lives. Critically, public management is seen as failing the disadvantaged, especially those who have no choice but to resign to its inadequacies. In response to trenchant criticism, the global development discourse has focused on devising numerous policies, structures and strategies. But, inevitably, the front line, institutional mechanism has not received the kind of analytical attention it warrants.

Across the world, public organisations are typically characterised by rigid weberian structures with minimal space for individual innovation or creativity. Governance frameworks exhibit command and control characterised by top-down leadership and delegation upwards. Employees are adept at both overly respecting and exercising power, suppressing values of self in deference to those of the system.

Building relationships

Not surprisingly, World Bank studies show that public service reform programmes are the most intractable. The recurrent challenge is to bring about changes in people and system performance. Harvard’s Frauke de Weijer associates these failures with treating such socio-human resource challenges as mere technical ones to be tamed by procedures and bureaucratic structures. Essentially, preoccupations with form need to be replaced by an understanding that development is predicated on an uninhibited rejection of the status quo — that is, understanding development as a change endeavour focused on facilitating those at the bottom of the pyramid towards higher satisfaction levels.

What this means is that change should necessarily begin at the bottom, the site of frequent interaction between citizens and the monolithic state. It is the experience of this interface that determines the quality of the service and how citizens subsequently view the state. This front line actuality epitomises the concept of Barefoot Bureaucracy — a construct that is bureaucratic in its regulatory behaviour yet barefoot in its proximity with the citizen and their shared socio-cultural and economic milieu. Barefoot bureaucracies reflect this personality paradox in the wide gamut of their choice, ranging from the whimsical bureaucratic gatekeeping in routine implementation, to yeoman barefoot service during disasters. In a world of scarce resources, who is granted access to free medicines, the water tap or the destitute pension? These are the many moral judgements they make everyday. Yet, there is potential in this paradox. Research has shown that successful public organisations are characterised by unusual dedication of ground-level employees to their jobs, with a strong sense of mission, purpose and the capacity to build relationships based on trust and ownership with communities.

Foot soldiers

Herein lies the opportunity. A performing barefoot bureaucracy can transform both the organisation and the people it serves as it is only in the interactions with the disadvantaged, that public organisations create maximum, incremental, economic and human developmental value. Public management needs to recognise the cutting edge as the value zone and the foot soldiers as the catalytic change agents. Clearly, the organisational structure should be geared towards creating an enabling environment for the change agent to perform its value functions to the best of individual and collective capabilities — the performance of an extension worker, a health worker or a teacher has a disproportionately large influence on the final outcomes of state programmes.

If we are to solve common action problems we need approaches that are consistent with public management, that encourage developmental value creation at multiple levels. Therefore, any attempt at change in public service performance would need to be barefoot bureaucracy-centric for creating maximum impact and ensuring its distortion free implementation. Such an inversion suggests a dilution, if not destruction, of the bureaucratic command structure to be replaced by a polycentric organisation encouraging a network of multiple-change leaders dispersed across the hierarchy. Each would be empowered with the freedom to create unique service pathways in response to their differing contexts, to honour their collective commitment to the common purpose. Nodes in this polycentric network would thrive on diversity with the understanding that each community requires a fresh exploration of social capital and forging of new relationships between the citizen, node and thus the state.

Noble laureate Elinor Ostrom posited this as a changed understanding of the role and relationship of public professionals and citizens. We can visualise them as utilising local knowledge, skills and experience towards co-creation of the service experience.

There is enough reason to hope that such change is not impossible. Large studies with U.S. social survey data found a strong correlation between public service motivation and preference for government jobs. A Dutch study found that government workers had higher levels of public service motivation than private sector workers. In the post-market collapse across the globe, front line pro-social activities have gained ground over the ‘I’ perspective popularised by rational choice economics.

Evidence apart, conceptually the desired transformation is predicated on the values and behaviour of barefoot bureaucracy. Values are the priorities we live by and are expressed in our choices. Human values are important to both achieving desired organisational goals and the care and management of common-pool resources. The challenge is to encourage, align and establish the desired values in the organisation.

Along with values, behaviour changes determine the individual and societal transformations that we seek. Public behaviour is essentially shaped by attitudes and perspectives. Any attempt at behaviour change requires addressing the cognitive, emotional and intentional segments of attitudes. And also redefining perspectives about the organisational purpose (development with dignity), the process (co-creating service) and people (reaching the unreached) at individual and group levels. Complex though it seems, such a transformation can be achieved. A multilayered randomised evaluation undertaken by Unicef of an extensive change programme carried out in South India found a threefold improvement in front line, barefoot bureaucrat behaviours, as experienced by socially disadvantaged groups.

About change

Globally, public services are under intense pressure to improve performance. While many structural reforms have been tried, barefoot bureaucracy has been consistently bypassed. Undeniably, sustained development can only be achieved by triggering the value creating potential at the bottom of the public service environment. Global policymakers should repose faith in these subalterns and reap the benefit of silent evolutionary change. With just mundane means they can generate spectacular ends. The tiger will change its stripes.

(Vibhu Nayar is a senior civil servant. The views expressed are personal.)

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The Author being a civil servant his idea is highly admirable that change should necessarily begin at the bottom, which leads to quality and transparent service delivery. Besides Organizational structures should also be given enough space for the change to imbibe in the system. This allows and encourage few emerging voluntary youth as change agents at bottom up will improve and catalyze the public service. The author also quotes various international success it could also be possible in our own nation as well as state.

from:  Dr V K R
Posted on: Jul 1, 2013 at 17:43 IST

Congratulations to the author for the timely article on the eve of the Public Services Day.
We have achieved freedom 66 years ago.We have not been able to plan and implement a development that is sustainable, inclusive, and equitable. The Political leadership and the Administrative System have largely been working with a top down approach that left the grassroots and above uninvolved and confused most of the times.Being faced with the challenges of economical and political instability,confrontation by social unrest and environmental threats it is high time the Political Leadership and the Administrative Systems pose faith on the Grassroots and empowers them to be able to realize an equitable and sustainable growth that brings hope to the millions and millions of disadvantaged people.

Posted on: Jul 1, 2013 at 07:47 IST

Good article. Nice to know that there are still some officers who have their ears close to
ground and empathise with people.Such are the salt of this earth....

from:  Amalorpavanathan
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 20:17 IST

Congrats to the author for a very thoughtful inspiriting article. I
agree with the views expressed by Thiru Vibhu Nayar a senior civil
servant,that "Undeniably, sustained development can only be achieved by
triggering the value creating potential at the bottom of the public
service environment".

from:  Chandrakumar Karnam
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 18:43 IST

We do have barefoot beurocracy--albeit for few weeks in summer--in Gujrat. Thousand of beurocrat descend to villages for three four weeks to help farmers and villagers not just on farming but all Government services. The author and Hindu should acknowledege this fact.

from:  P. Abad
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 18:00 IST

I agree with the views that, "Undeniably, sustained development can only
be achieved by triggering the value creating potential at the bottom of
the public service environment" as expressed by Thiru Vibhu Nayar,a
senior civil servant..

from:  Karnam Chandrakumar
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 17:07 IST

It must also be remembered that the government officials at the grassroots level is are generally appointed by the state governments. Examples would include the block development officer, the constable, the tehsildar etc. These are the first points of contact for the common man. The IAS officers appointed at the Union level are generally posted at higher levels of bureaucracy starting from SDM and the like. Thus, state governments have a greater role to play in the creation of a barefoot bureaucracy. In this context, reforms in the State Public Service Commissions are urgently needed. Equally important is the implementation of the Police Reforms as ordered by the Supreme Court.

from:  Nitish Aggarwala
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 16:46 IST

India needs more and more barefooted Bureaucrats, Manages and Engineers...But the cult is towards AC room culture as these class of people want to remain in comfort zones. India is hugely populous country and its strength should be its own people. In India Salary differentials among organized, unorganized and Govt sector are so huge; this has created different class cultures. People join Govt services ( most of them) for job security, good salry and pace of work as per their sweet will.
The article is timely and well meaning.

from:  KK Sharma
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 16:23 IST

going barefoot has a better a bank officer going by foot for inspection and/or recovery especially in respect of S and ME borrowers had a profound impact. they had better regard and could sense we were serious about our business. more than anything one creates an impact. similarly a walking administrative official would impress high involvement.

from:  revathi
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 15:37 IST

In last 50 years, there have been attempts at creating barefoot
bureaucracy in India but it strongly lacks Government backing. For
instance, ICDS scheme created army of AWW, ANM while NRHM created post
of village level ASHA.

Barefoot bureaucracy is backbone of local bodies whose services like
garbage collection, street lighting, sewage system maintenance reach
the door steps of the aam aadmi.

But the reality is that ICDS & NRHM workers are not even provided with
descent salary and job security. The municipalities are starved of

The bottleneck always is at the top.

from:  Mahesh J
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 10:35 IST

Congrats to the author for a very thought-provoking article. In the Indian context today, largely
the bureaucratic pattern has been a continuation of the British rule. The core philosophy of a
buraucratic regime, where a foreign power ruling over a native population needed to exercise
absolute control,has remained unchanged.The only change has been in the process of
appointment of the ruler.The resultant faceless gigantic system lacks the local flavour and
values and a concern for values in Governance.This lack of concern in the delivery of
Governance is at the root of the degeneration of Indian society. This foreign origin of the
present governance mechanism has resulted in the absence of the 'values in delivery 'as
mentioned by the author.We can learn a lot from the long history of local self governance in
India to arrive at an effective and just interface for public service.

from:  Vivekananda Pai
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 08:55 IST

Well, it is always better late than never. From the time of Emperor Asoka, there have been injunctions for officers to make inspection tours and to look after the well-being of the people as "children of the Emperor". Even during the British rule, district collectors used to make inspections on horseback, cycle or motor cycle. That helped in "grass-roots" development to a degree. Now that is all largely past. "Barefoot bureaucracy" would be an attempt to re-create that model.It is perhaps the only way out. But how many politicians or even how many NGOs - let alone government staff - would be willing to go "barefoot" into the country side?

from:  Prosenjit Das Gupta
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 08:16 IST

The problem with the Indian bureaucracy is that it is still cast on the
lines of the ICS! Efforts should be made to increase the number of
officers belonging to rural and impoverished sections of society.

from:  Umesh Bhagwat
Posted on: Jun 29, 2013 at 05:23 IST
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