Diana Jue-Rajasingh

An Long Overdue Research Recap

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 17, 2012

A few days ago, I finally met with my research adviser to talk about research, that fuzzy activity that the national government is paying me to do. We had an interesting discussion that basically recapped the few interviews I had conducted before I left the country. From the discussion, I could instantly see where my adviser and I disagree. I am aiming to get to the root of why officers are afraid to take initiative as leaders in their positions, and I am utterly convinced that it’s a structural problem, not an individual problem. My adviser, on the other hand, believes that it’s more personality-based — or, at least, based on an individual’s ability to communicate and an individual’s understanding of his/her organization’s goals. [And these points are but subpoints, since getting a superior on your side and knowing organizational goals contribute to lessening risk.] In the end, I want to believe that we can enact reforms within entire Indian Administrative Service that promote autonomous decision-making and leadership by providing a safe space for leaders to be leaders.

Although my adviser may think otherwise, I will stick with my guns until I find something better: a huge reason for why bureaucrats do not take decisions is because they are afraid. They are risk-averse, and the entire system is set up for risk aversion. At the lower level of bureaucracy, officers actually have limited authority and need to get clearance from the center (the Indian civil service is hierarchical and rigid, and it is based on an outdated system that was initially supposed to be a way for the British to maintain control over the locals; more on this later). Additionally, there is very little reward for decisions that end up with good results and severe punishment for decisions that end up with bad results. Officers have many watchdogs, and political bosses can actually do things to officers that they’re unhappy with (e.g. unearth tainted pasts, file lawsuits, etc.).

However, I do see that at a certain level of seniority, officers also get quite comfortable and lazy with not doing anything. At this point, perhaps the issue is less about fear and more about laziness/lack of accountability regarding concrete outcomes. Given that officers rotate posts every two to three years and that promotions are based on years in the service instead of effectiveness, there is just not that much incentive for officers to put their hearts into their jobs. Additionally, top-level IAS officers both create and implement policy, which not only takes up time but creates another excuse for not taking action (that is, if officers don’t create a policy, then there’s nothing to implement and no measuring stick for failure or success to take action). As I mentioned earlier, the officers think much more about themselves and their comfort instead of their organization’s effectiveness and the people their organizations are supposed to serve.

During my discussion with my adviser, one idea that I didn’t take issue with was the fact that the IAS needs a sustainable leadership model. Basically, organizations are less known for their organizations than they are known for their leaders. When the leaders leave organizations as headless chickens, the organizations fail to function. Middle management is filled with yes-men who will do whatever the next leader wants, even if it means repealing a policy implemented by the previous leader. There is little space for middle management to take up authority, as decisions need to be approved at the top.

Another idea that came up was this issue of external management. My adviser said something along the lines of, “In India, it’s all about external management. If you’re a master of external management, then you can do anything.” That basically means that if an officer can get politicians on his/her side, then he/she can do anything he/she desires. This honestly makes me a bit wary. First, if officers had real authority, then they’d have so much space to act and to innovate. Since they don’t have real authority, they don’t act or innovate. Second, this doesn’t seem to hold officers accountable. If all they need is the go-ahead from the top, who’s to make sure that they both create and implement policies that deliver services to the public? And what about input from the public?

Anyway, more thoughts to come. I’m reading a fantastic book right now about the Indian civil service and will update with more information from it shortly.

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