Ethics in the civil services: A primordial necessity

An excerpt from new book on administrative reforms edited by Vinod Rai

GN Bureau | April 17, 2023

#Bureaucracy   #Reforms   #Vinod Rai   #Administration   #Corruption   #Ethics  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

Transforming the Steel Frame: Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform
Edited by Vinod Rai
Rupa, 256 pages, Rs 595
The bureaucracy in India has been a study in contradictions. On the one hand, it represents the dream job for an entire population of Indians who take the UPSC examination to join the famed ‘Steel Frame’, keeping the country running. On the other hand, it is rife with tales of corruption and red tape, such that citizens dread any interaction with government officials of any order.

Curated by veteran bureaucrat, former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai, ‘Transforming the Steel Frame: Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform’ examines the roles and responsibilities of the bureaucracy in modern times. It sets forth a vision of the future through an analysis and review of past attempts at reform, in the process revisiting the strengths of the systems as well as the flaws that prevent its optimal functioning. It includes the perspective of former civil servants who have been a part of this system for their entire lives and reflect on its problems while making recommendations for the future; officials who have participated in setting evaluation standards for the civil services and who have headed training academies and businesspersons who have worked both in the private and public domains and collaborated extensively with the bureaucracy.

In the breadth and thoroughness of its coverage, ‘Transforming the Steel Frame’ provides an excellent overview of the civil services as they are and, more importantly, as they should be. The study that forms part of this book has been initiated by the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

Here is an excerpt from the book, a part of the essay by Rai that forms the concluding chapter:

A Primordial Necessity

By Vinod Rai

‘Jharkhand IAS officer Pooja Singhal arrested in Rs 18 crore MGNREGA scam.’; ‘Rs 28 crore cash, 5kg gold seized from flat of Bengal minister Partha’s aide.’; ‘Action initiated against officials responsible for construction of Noida twin towers but none in jail.’ These are the headlines that stare back at you when one opens the newspapers in recent days. Not a day passes without a news item alleging misdemeanour by a public servant. Each of these points to lack of integrity, acts of collusion for financial gains, political alignment for nepotism, etc. It is a distressing fact that lack of ethics has become very widespread among public officials and civil servants.

Is this the new normal? Must we get accustomed to this reality that morality, ethics and probity do not find any place in the public domain? Does the civil service lexicon no longer contain these expressions? This would imply that accountability, transparency and fairness also have to be given the go-by. Is the country facing a deficit of ethical governance and has the civil service either gotten embroiled in the widely prevailing climate or is unable to deal with it? Government also seems to be seized with this widely prevailing phenomenon.

Government has launched a comprehensive programme of capacity building for the civil services, Mission Karmayogi, ‘to address the changing needs and aspiration of the citizen’. The central theme of the mission is to prepare a competent workforce to discharge its role in a dynamic environment. The programme lays emphasis on creating a culture of accountability and transparency. While capacity building to infuse greater professionalism in any organization is an ongoing process and has rightly been emphasized by the government, it is the culture of probity, integrity and accountability that has to be embedded into the DNA of any public service. It need not be emphasized that integrity is the obligation, of those holding power, to take responsibility for their behaviour and actions. In any parliamentary democracy, a culture of probity encompasses the principles of equality before law; and respect for the rights and duties of leaders towards their citizens. With greater awareness among citizens, there is a greater demand for transparency. Civil servants need to espouse the fact that they sit and operate in glasshouses.

Each action of theirs is open to scrutiny and question. They will have to be accountable for each of their actions and any political, regional or partisan decision will be at their own peril. Imbibing high standards of probity is a societal requirement and any deficiency in maintaining these standards will lead to a breakdown of trust between an administration and its citizens.

Ethical Governance

Ethical governance and integrity in public actions has attained iconic status. Even among corporates, ESG (environmental, social and corporate governance factors), have become an essential subset of non-financial parameters which point to the ethical, sustainability and corporate governance issues such as ensuring accountability and ethical governance.

The need for ethical governance has never been so strongly felt as in the present-day world. Only efficient and effective governance can meet these challenges. It is increasingly becoming evident that efficiency and effectiveness in governance are not sustainable without probity and accountability. We need to be conscious of this factor and hence, the need to ensure ethical conduct in all our operations.

A country is not respected for its forests and mountains, roads and rivers, monuments and structures but the quality of administration in terms of ethics in society and government; integrity in public agencies; and moral standards set by public leaders. A value-driven society is the hallmark of a progressive nation. Today, as democracy takes root all over the globe, people demand and expect ethical governance from its public institutions. This is the edifice, the basic foundation upon which any responsive and open organization can be built. From time immemorial, probity in public life has been a major concern of society, since probity in public organizations is an important element in building the character of a nation and its citizens. A modern nation sustains itself on the commitments of its citizen to the core principles and values of public service. It is a quality that can neither be imbibed in a B-school nor a training academy. It has to be ingrained in the growing-up process of every individual. It, thus, has to start from the home, be continued in school and become the fundamental core of a person’s being.

The professional integrity of public officials would dictate that they adopt values and integrity in their dealings with citizens’ issues. Sound moral and ethical beliefs and basic honesty are highly valued characteristics in any civil servant. Acting with integrity and honesty is an actual advantage for any administration. It builds trust and people are drawn towards such honest and dependable behaviour. Thus, we need to recognize that integrity in governance is not the end in itself. It is merely a means to create an enabling environment in which every individual gets to benefit from the fruits of economic development. For this, the bureaucracy, at all levels, has to perform its role with impartiality, transparency and probity. It is a system in which the rule of law is allowed to take its course and the ultimate pursuit is that of the collective good and not any partisan interests.

No organization’s success can be sustainable unless it is built on an edifice of integrity and credibility. Ethical management and leadership are the cornerstone of any successful public organization and has to set the tone and create a culture of honesty and integrity.

The civil service needs to imbibe a fresh code of ethics. It needs to adopt zero tolerance for lack in integrity among its officials. Today, more than ever in the history of India, every patriot at heart wants to build an India that is truly a world leader.

[Excerpt reproduced with permission of the publishers.]



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