Public accountability of policy-makers

Public accountability of policy-makers

The idea of accountability has been popularized by experts ever since the corporate mode of governance in industry. This is used as a method of...

The idea of accountability has been popularized by experts ever since the corporate mode of governance in industry. This is used as a method of accounting obligations of functionaries of a business organisation and is ensured through different approaches. There is a blend of business accounting and democratic participation in the system to ensure that the organisation is accountable to the shareholders or partners. It is basically a book-keeping function. The objective of transparency in decision-making is guaranteed through the annual statement of accounts; particularly in the profit-and-loss account to the general body (along with other financial statements).This is taken as one of the criteria to assess accountability in public affairs, including public enterprises.

The development of public enterprises, both as a part of the system of mixed economy and also as a mechanism of democratic socialism, has played an important role during the 20th century. India (Nehru) along with several other countries, particularly the so- called non-aligned socialist bloc, used public enterprises to build their economies. What is deficient in the whole process seemed to be the absence of the application of democratic instruments of governance. The core of elections, voting, referendum, counter proposals, minority veto, plebiscite, etc., are totally missing in the instruments of public accountability.

It is found that the enterprises are obliged to present an annual report to the Parliament/Assembly and a proviso to raise questions, debates, etc., in the legislature. It is likely that details about the functioning of the enterprise are elicited and such procedure is construed as public accountability. There are several flaws in the method. In fact scholars have provided alternative concepts like external productivity, cost-effectiveness, social cost benefit ratio, etc, that are used to substantiate the usefulness of a project or enterprise to society. Further, social responsibility or constitutional obligation seems to be more relevant and is within the concept of bounded rationality. Are the concepts suitable to account for the activities of all the functionaries in government?

Most of the decisions in the government are either taken or vetted by officers. The accountability of a government servant is ensured through two sets of service rules known as conduct rules and civil services classification, control and appeal rules.

There are separate rules for All India Service officers like IAS, IPS, etc., and the Code of Ethics is not yet prescribed. The rules ensure that the term of office of the incumbent is protected under Art 311 and, at the same time, extract the work as per norms and conditions of service.

This is a requisite service condition for a clerk as well as a Cabinet Secretary. The method of assessing the work or making them accountable is done through vertical (outside the State apparatus) and horizontal (within the State) methods. The vertical forms of accountability are of very recent origin after the RTI, media, citizen's committees, civil society activism, etc., that are slowly picking up in India. The internal accountability is ensured through entries in the ACRs (1-10 grading), Vigilance/CBI report, Performance Management system, Disciplinary proceedings, comments of the judiciary and CAG, etc.

The most significant job of a civil servant is formulating and/or assisting in the design of public policy. Therefore, in democratic countries like the UK, Civil services values are given importance. The civil servants are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament. Therefore, the Civil service core values of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality, together with political neutrality and anonymity, are said to be the hallmark of efficient civil service.

But, the Sixth Pay Commission in India has remarked that "the institutional structures of top down management and isolated managerial efforts have proved inadequate for satisfying performance, i.e.; delivery of results and outcomes. There is over-reliance on Command models of administrative efforts for service delivery. .. The importance of a system's shift from top down monitoring to stakeholder-citizen participation and co-production with transparency and checks is critical for better public service delivery".

The second Administrative Reforms Commission recommended a Civil Services Code and Ethics in Governance for ensuing accountability. It is, however, alleged that most of the above are observed in their breach than in execution, seems to be supported by the increasing number of cases of disciplinary proceedings against officers by the UPSC and the CVC. Legislators are accountable to people in theory at the time of elections. Interestingly, the judiciary is not accountable to anyone except their conscience as of now till the pending Bills are cleared .Is it not ludicrous in a democratic country?

The Sixth Pay Commission and SARC have recommended lateral entry of officers at the level of Joint Secretary and above to be recruited through the UPSC. It seems the rules are framed to implement the recommendations soon. This is the time to reflect on an important set of functionaries in the government who are above public accountability. They are the policy-makers and advisors in the form adjuncts to the Ministers, PMO, Planning Commission (not officers) and other non-descript organisations. They prescribe many things like crude price, coal price, privatisation, etc. They are not amenable to any of the instruments of accountability and disciplinary proceedings noted above.

In fact, the tyranny of some of the policy-makers is so depraved that most of the controversies in recent times could be ascribed to some of their policy advice and execution. Some of them are not direct recruits and very few are from the mainstream civil service (post-retirement).

They enjoy absolute freedom necessary in a democratic society but are not accountable directly to the legislature or any democratic agency. The academics that earn and live in the West and advise on Indian affairs are also beyond the quagmire as they are the neo-dvijas (two lives). This is typical of the Indian system of governance evolved during the post-1991 period.

Most of the policy packages are deliberated and supposed to be processed as per the Business Rules approved in accordance with Art 77 and 78 of the Constitution. However, most of the policy-makers are not aware of the constitutional provisions; and even if they know, have contempt for it. We don't find the kind of confession expressed by scholars like Samuelson (Nobel economist) who said that, "masters of financial engineering had been created, a lot of them at MIT, some of them by people like me; there is no CEO who understands at all, a derivative".

On the other hand, we come across persuasive arguments and academic publications, for instance, to further liberalise markets in India when the country is in deep crisis. What does it mean? Is it irresponsibility or unethical oddity?

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