Systemic Issues Open Page

Where there is no cost for doing nothing

In the bureaucracy, lack of initiative should be penalised and immunity offered for reasoned decision-making

If you were to analyse the deep-rooted ‘red-tapism’ in India, you will find a myriad of reasons. Archaic laws, multiple approving authorities with minimal coordination, deep-rooted corruption, lack of political will and an aversion to technology-enabled workflow will rank high amongst the possible reasons. But the primary cause behind snail-paced decision-making in the Indian bureaucratic system is the incentive offered for doing nothing. Yes, the system is actually incentivised for doing nothing.

If a bureaucrat does not make a decision, which may be on a contentious matter, his or her chances of getting superseded for the next promotion or missing an annual increment are close to zero at the junior and middle levels of the Indian bureaucracy. When it comes to career advancement, even for the coveted Indian Administrative Service, there are hardly any repercussions for not taking sufficient initiative in the initial 10 to 15 years.

Contrast this with the possible costs associated with actually making a decision. There is a likelihood that one may end up paying a very significant cost for doing something like taking an initiative or making a decision that is not reliant upon routine precedents and requires an iota of reasoned thinking. Such a bureaucrat may come under the scrutiny of the Lokayukta, the Legislative Assembly, the Vigilance Commissioner and the Comptroller and Auditor General, among many others. A pending enquiry will definitely delay his or her promotion even if no merit is discovered or adequate evidence is provided in complainant’s assertion.

The probability of an enquiry being initiated increases significantly if the decision involves a commercial activity. As is common with any commercial activity, there is generally a party that is aggrieved by the decisions rendered on the matter. Such an aggrieved party may be a well-entrenched incumbent whose business interests may be harmed by impeding competition, a disgruntled competitor who missed a fair shot at the opportunity, a power broker who failed to oblige his client, or a politician who was unsuccessful in advancing the personal interest of his or her cronies. Taking a decision invites scrutiny; not taking a decision invites none.

When the decks are stacked so clearly in favour of not making a decision based on merit and reason, it is naïve to assume that any able bureaucrat will venture to take an uncompensated risk. Only non-routine decisions that are likely to be made in these circumstances will be decisions that are “well-supported”. Well-supported by one of the many likely opponents listed above to a fair decision, or well-supported by a monetary incentive. By making such “well-supported” decisions, a bureaucrat at least buys immunity from one of the probable opponents to the decision or receives political patronage or accumulates a war chest to deal with adverse repercussions of making a decision. In reality, it is more than likely that he will end up in a situation where he receives more than one of the above benefits offered by “well-supported” decisions.

Numerous research studies on organisational performance have shown a high degree of correlation between employee goals and employee actions. Till such time an effective performance appraisal system is put in place, penalising lack of initiative and offering immunity for reasoned decision-making, it will be erroneous to assume that the pace of bureaucratic decision-making will change in India. Politicians will continue to invent slogans and bureaucrats will continue to do absolutely nothing.

ashish@quadraturecapital.net

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 10:19:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Where-there-is-no-cost-for-doing-nothing/article14244146.ece

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