It's in the attitude, my dear

Good news comes quietly, and it did two weeks ago on a typical May evening as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a new system to evaluate the IAS officer. Our real failures, I have always believed, are managerial and not political. Laloo may grab the headlines but good governance lies in the ubiquitous daily interface between the lowest babu and the public. It is not a good thing for a whole generation to grow up despising public servants, and this new performance based report card is the first in a series of administrative reforms that could begin to cure our sick bureaucracy. It replaces the subjective Annual Confidential Report and if implemented well, it could make our officers accountable, motivating the honest and punishing the lazy and corrupt. A similar system has helped improve performance of private and public sector bureaucracies around the world. Our bureaucrat too is basically careerist and he ought to respond to the right incentives.

There are two kinds of individuals in government. One is helpful; the other entangles you in red tape. My neighbour's aunt goes to collect her pension every month in person, and if the first type is at the window, she quickly gets her money and returns home happy. If it is the second, she gets the run around, and her whole week is often ruined. So, it comes down to a matter of attitude, which percolates down from the top to the lowest official. I am pleased that the new system will also assess attitude (at least once every five years.)

In the private sector the competitive spirit helps create an attitude of service. A saree shopkeeper will show you 50 sarees even if you don't buy one because he fears his competitor. Studies confirm that high performing companies create an environment that rewards employees with a helpful attitude. Such employees, they know, win customers and raise the organisation's morale. Hence, they often hire people for their attitudes and train them in skills. It is difficult to uncover attitudes in a single interview, however, which is why an investment bank like Goldman Sachs interviews a candidate 17 times on the average, even when she is A+ from Harvard. It is looking for character, which is revealed not in how a person treats his superior but his subordinate or a stranger. I am delighted that peers, subordinates, and clients will also now help assess an officer. There are many proven ways to uncover attitudes and the UPSC would also do well to adopt them when recruiting new officers.

At the end of his book, Governance: and the sclerosis that has set in, Arun Shourie explains how the nature of the Indian state has changed. In the 1950s Jawaharlal Nehru made an effort to fashion the state into an engine of growth. In the following three decades the Indian state became the “Great Monitor”, which authorized, banned, channelled every step that we citizens took. Today it is being refashioned by economic reforms to into an enabling state--a state that enables its citizens to do what they can do best.

Motivated senior officials with the right attitude are crucial to creating an enabling state. This new appraisal system is thus a good beginning. The next step is to link good performance with faster promotions and slow or stop the promotions of bad officers. Many more such reforms are urgently needed. Meanwhile, coming as this does on the heels of the new Right to Information Bill, gives us reason to cheer that the much abused Indian public may finally get a chance at good governance.

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