For ending corruption and improving governance, we need to institutionalise reforms in personnel deployments and procurements by the government.
There are no more important contributors to our governance failures and pervasive corruption than the unhealthy practices that corrode personnel deployments and procurements by government agencies. Frequent and arbitrary transfers of officials are a feature of personnel management within government agencies across India. Political leaders prefer their favourites in important positions to exercise influence over the department as well as to further their personal rent-seeking ambitions. The former is essential to dispense political patronage through preferential and extra-legal access to public services. The later generates the rents from political power.
It is no secret that in many parts of India local caste relations and political equations determine the appointment of important officials like Tahsildars and police Station House Officers (SHO), who then owe allegiance to their political patrons. Positions that involve high-stakes regulatory and procurement responsibilities are among the most politicised. These so called “focal posts” are the object of fierce competition among officials, who are motivated by rent-seeking considerations. A mutually beneficial partnership develops between political leaders and officials.
This partnership corrodes the bureaucratic rules of the game. Emboldened by political support, the official feels no longer accountable to either his external stakeholders or superiors within the department. It is therefore no surprise that the local SHO becomes unresponsive even in the face of egregious injustice or the Deputy Executive Engineer pays lip-service to his Superintending Engineer. The administrative system gets enfeebled and quality of public service delivery suffers.
Procurement of goods and services by government agencies is the other important source of governance failures.Procurements vary from student hostel kitchen provisions and office supplies to outsourcing hospital cleanliness and awarding large engineering contracts. Like with personnel deployments, political leaders are attracted by the patronage and rent-seeking opportunities that come with favoring one supplier over another. They enlist the services of collaborators within the bureaucracy to game the procurement process. Poor quality of goods and services are procured. Efficient and superior contractors and service providers get crowded out. The system gets entrapped in a vicious spiral of inefficiency and squandering of public funds.
Any meaningful efforts to reform personal deployments and procurements have to start with de-politicising them. Personnel deployment reforms should have atleast three essential features. One, transfers in each department should become institutionalised in the form of a uniform transfer policy. It should clearly define those eligible, the criterion, and the process. Any deviation should be only under permissible circumstances. The department should audit all its transfers within a month of the year-end. The Head of Department should be made accountable for revoking deviant transfers, initiating and finalising disciplinary action against those responsible for them, and placing the action taken report before the State Assembly for discussion. Unfortunately, though many departments across states now have a policy, its compliance is suspect.
Second, the entire process of actual transfers should be made transparent, on a standardised, and preferably on-line, platform. The seniority list and duration of tenures of all officials should be formally available always on public domain. All transfers should be done strictly only during the season, except retirements or resignations, in which case too they should follow clear guidelines. The process of internal re-deployments within a district by local heads to meet various contingencies, should also be governed by a similar transparent policy.
Third, all postings should be for a fixed tenure. Stability of tenure, by itself, creates accountability. It takes a few months for any official, howsoever experienced, to become familiar with their operational jurisdiction. Further, when officials are transferred once a few months, they have no incentive to plan and implement programs. More importantly, it becomes easy to shift blame on their predecessors or on some extraneous factors. But if an official has been in place for atleast two years, he cannot either feign ignorance or evade responsibility about problems in his jurisdiction. In this context, both the Supreme Court and the Administrative Reforms Commissions have repeatedly demanded that governments formulate a policy to ensure stability of tenure. Its implementation would significantly enhance administrative efficiency.
Any effort at reforming procurements should start with bringing all purchases of a department under a uniform policy framework. The procurement policy should clearly outline the list of activities that can be outsourced and goods and services procured, as well as the process of tendering. While many departments have procurement policies, more can be done to standardise procurement practices across levels, enhance transparency, and ensure compliance. Web-enabled software applications can help standardise processes, increase transparency, and reduce discretion. All information regarding any tender should be available in real-time, in a user-friendly interface, including the details of contract performance and payments due and made.
Another essential reform should be to strengthen internal controls, through process re-engineering, to pre-empt procurement irregularities. The prevailing practice of audits, by state and central auditors, is delay-prone and too back-ended to serve as an effective deterrent. All procurements made during the year should be audited within a month or two of the year-end. This should be supplemented with focused external audits of both the work-flow as well as its adherence.
Finally, no amount of reform can succeed without ending the current practice of letting off leniently even grave offenders. Governments need to restore the credibility of disciplinary proceedings arising from procurement related irregularities.
The administration of all procurements within each department could be entrusted to a Chief Procurement Officer. There should be a self-triggering mechanism of escalating periodic reviews that establish accountability to take conclusive action on these findings, including by the Secretaries to Government. Each department should table an audited report of its annual procurements, including the disciplinary action taken on all irregularities, before the State Assembly within four months of the year-end. The Public Accounts Committees of the state legislatures and Parliament should rigorously scrutinize these reports, especially the more serious and egregious irregularities.
The new government which recently assumed office in Delhi can signal its strong commitment to ending corruption and improving governance by institutionalising some or other of such reforms.
Photo: Greenwich photography