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Unbureaucratising the Mindset

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The journey from “What do you want here?” to “How may I serve you?” could not possibly be measured in distance or time since it is all in the mind and might take light years or happen in an instant. But that is precisely the mindset that the civil service is set to adopt to cope with the demands of the future.

This change of the mindset begins with the gradual deconstruction of the age old image of the typical ‘risk averse’ bureaucrat. The image must have stemmed from their reluctance about anything that had not been tried and tested. But today’s bureaucrats are being told that ‘Failure is OK’.

Senior policymakers as well as heads of civil service are using this slogan to encourage service innovation. It is not possible to innovate without taking risks. But a rule-based procedure is so entrenched in the bureaucracy as to make it synonymous with the undue and unwarranted formality also known as ‘red tape’. Moreover, a government burdened with a colonial past finds itself all the more obsessed with a rule based mode of work.

But bringing about this change that radically contrasts with the prevailing mode of operation is not easily done. It is difficult to transform a system originally designed to rule, into one that is friendly and looks to serve. Fundamental changes have to be made in terms of rules, regulations, practices, nature of training and philosophy. But while that radical transformation may not be possible, the administration could certainly be nudged and pushed along that path. As always such changes need individuals who blaze the trail, which is why innovators in the bureaucracy and government are being encouraged to take risks. Regardless of their magnitude, enterprising officials had to take risks to get their innovations tested and operational on the ground. It holds true for every single case where citizens’ life has been made simpler. In all cases, there has been a fundamental change in the mindset of the innovators themselves. In some cases, the innovator has had to go beyond the custom. Many have had to ruffle the wrong feather and incur the wrath of superiors. At times, they have even broken the rules. And only after so much trouble have they succeeded in truly serving the citizen, either by bringing the service closer, or by making it cheaper or more readily available.

With those successes in front of us as glittering examples, we are witnessing the emergence of a culture of risk-taking. Although not so visible at central level at the ministries, it is spreading like wildfire in the field administration.

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At present, more than 500 projects are running on the ground with resources mobilised by the innovators themselves. While in agriculture, innovators are keen to provide farmers with fast and accurate solution to their problems, another group is engrossed in trying to rid the database system of corruption or irregularity as far as land management is concerned. Some others are trying to incorporate a system that prioritises access to improved healthcare for the underprivileged. In youth skills training, they are trying to customise the curriculum so that it corresponds with market demand. Regardless of the project, each has one eventual goal — to reduce time and money for the citizens.

The other change in the mindset is to bring down the bureaucrat from their thrones to fill the shoes of the servant. This is another challenging task, and as difficult as getting bureaucrats to take risks, if not more. Having inherited the traditions of a predatory colonial bureaucracy that hardly looked out for the welfare of the sovereign citizen, today’s bureaucrats regard themselves as the ruler rather than the servant that they really are.

Hence “Behave like a servant, not a ruler,” is a message handed down from the top. To make sure that this message is not just eyewash, genuine implementation is in fact monitored by the Cabinet Division and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Once again, the government seems to be learning from what it is preaching when it decided such a transition in the prevailing mindset will not be attained with enforcement only. Hence there is also encouragement and incentives. Only recently, and for the very first time, best performance along these lines were recognised as 2 officers, 2 teams and 2 organisations were given the Public Administration Award.

Moreover, stories of innovation, stories of better service have become the factors of pride and are showcased as successes, which in turn encourage others to take up where their predecessors have left off. Given this fertile environment, well-meaning enthusiasm and a desire to do good will eventually overtake the stiff reluctance of the typically risk averse bureaucracy.

2017-02-12

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