OBSTACLES TO ETHICAL ACCOUNTABILITY IN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
Accountability and ethics are closely related. Effective accountability helps the achievement of ethical standards in the governance system. Legislative or parliamentary control through questions, debates and committees provide ample opportunity to the people’s representatives to raise, among other things, issues of ethics and morality in the governance system. More particularly, the Public Accounts Committee in India, which gives its comments on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its reports, raises matters that directly or indirectly relate to ethics and good governance.
In the USA, the Office of Government Ethics, an independent agency, helps the Senate in the process of confirming or rejecting Presidential appointments, particularly in matter of financial decisions. “Ethics can be considered a form of self-accountability, or an `inner-check’ on public administrators’ conduct” (Rosenbloom and Kravchuk, 2005). Self-accountability and external accountability are interrelated for it is the latter that imposes expectations on the former. However, there are certain time-tested norms of moral conduct that determine the nature of self-accountability. These precepts of moral philosophy may be considered as internal checks. Essentially, however, it is the synthesis of external as well internal checks that determine the parameters of administrative ethics. The higher the level of ethics, the lower the need for strong instruments of external accountability and control. Conversely, lower the level of ethics, higher the need for potent external means for ensuring accountability.
Max Weber had maintained that the outside (extra-agency) checks on public administration were inadequate. Hence, the value of self-accountability is immense. The desire to be ethical in one’s profession should spring from within. Seventy years ago, John Gaus in his book, The Frontiers of Public Administration (1936) had remarked that public employees were expected to exercise an “inner check” rooted in professional standards of administration and ideals. This type of emphasis needs to be seriously reasserted.
David Rosenbloom and Robert S. Kravchuk (op.cit.) raise a pertinent question: “Why is it difficult to guard the guardians?” There are certain intrinsic features of the administrative system that make it difficult for the external regulating institutions to control it and also ensure its accountability. A few of these imponderables are discussed below:
Special Expertise and Information
Public administrators are often experts in their specific area of functioning and it is difficult for any outside agency to surpass them in their areas of specialisation. Moreover, they generate and control crucial information that may be difficult to be accessed or even comprehended by law regulators, much less by the common citizens. Although the Right to Information Act (or similar legislations) is there in most countries, there is cost to be paid for obtaining information and verifying its authenticity. The administrators do not easily part with such information and are too keen to let their citadels remain impregnable.
Most public administrators are full-time, while outsiders cannot devote equal amount of time in overseeing their activities – legislators, judiciary, Comptroller and Auditor General of India and even the media have relatively less time to keep a watch over the actions of administrators. They cannot seek all the crucial information from administrators and even if they get it, they do not have sufficient time to process and use it effectively.
Massive Expansion of Bureaucracy
In a country such as India, the role of public administration has been increasing incessantly. Its regulatory, developmental, promotional and entrepreneurial responsibilities have been multiplying and with that also its size. The number of public personnel as well as the agencies they work for have gone up so much that it is difficult for the political executive or the legislature to exercise effective control over them. Likewise, in large-sized organisations like Public Works Department, Income Tax Department, Police Department, etc., it is impossible for higher officials to keep an eye on the conduct of their subordinates. The geographical distribution of government agencies also makes the span of control too wide to be handled effectively. Even computerisation of all personnel records cannot ensure surveillance over the conduct of all personnel.
Lack of Coordination
The number and kinds of agencies to ensure probity in public administration have also been increasing continually. In India, for instance the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Central Vigilance Commission, State Lok Ayuktas, State Vigilance Bodies and Anti-Corruption Departments are co-existing sans effective coordination among them. There are lacunae in the working of the vigilance machinery and absence of harmony among the variegated anti-corruption agencies. For years altogether, the permission to prosecute government officials is not granted to the Anti-Corruption Departments. The Lok Pal is yet to be appointed at the national level and there is no agency that is doing the job supposed to be undertaken by him. The judiciary is slow and there are no fast-track courts for dealing with cases of corruption.
As mentioned already, in the United States, the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 created an Office of Government Ethics (OGE) in the Office of Personnel Management. The Ethics Reforms Act of 1989 strengthened the OGE, now an independent agency within the executing branch. No such institution exists in India or in other developing countries.
Most countries grant protection to civil servants and refrain from punishing them for the common lapses in the performance of their duties. Besides, there are no punishments prescribed for non-performance or for low productivity. Article 311 of the Indian Constitution makes it almost impossible to remove a civil servant. A sense of over-security pervades the personnel system and the inquiry system is so dilatory and cumbersome that it is devoid of any threat or fear. Resultantly, a low level of discipline in most government organisations is witnessed. And when corruption permeates all the echelons of administrators in the organisations, the potential efficacy of internal control becomes woefully meager.
Misinterpretation of Role and Obligation
Civil servants frequently engage themselves in actions that are unethical and against public interest. Over time, they get used to defining their role and responsibilities in a parochial manner that is either self-centered, group-centred or organisation-centred and never people-centred. Since all-important professional groups, including the politicians, also adopt a tunnel vision in perceiving social reality, there are hardly any countervailing forces for the prevention or correction of a parochial interpretation of public interest by the administrative personnel. As a result, both ethics and accountability suffer.
There is a general tendency among administrators to view public interest from a narrow angle and tunnel vision. Their specialisation and the specific goals of their organisations prompt them to focus on the achievement of narrow organisational goals. In this process, the issue of public interest may get submerged under organisational interest. The Excise Department of a state, for example, may be interested in opening more wine and beer shops in order to earn more revenue and thus may ignore the impact this expansion of sale network of intoxicants will have on the physical and moral health of citizens.
The political pressures imposed from above also colour the vision of administrators. Occasionally, one notices that the Police Department, because of pressure from its political bosses is caught between the compulsion of hierarchy and the obligation of duty. The police officials generally succumb to political pressures in order to save their own interests and that of their families. Occasionally, `inconvenient’ civil servants are punished with transfers to `difficult’ locations or postings that may cause problems to their families.
In India and in most developing countries, public employees are socialised into developing loyalty towards the organisation that they serve and to the superior authority under which they work. It is customary in the Indian society to show respect to the superior and to refrain from criticism of one’s boss in a public organisation. Any voice against the superiors is considered as an act of insubordination. In such a cultural climate, even the honest and conscientious employees do not speak out against unethical practices of their peers and seniors. And the undue compassion occasionally shown to the subordinates on their errors of omission and commission also tend to strengthen the sinews of a `soft state’. All this represents a misplaced loyalty and magnanimity that eats into the vitals of the ethical order in public administrative system. As the Indian democracy becomes more mature, it is hoped that whistle blowing will be considered a legitimate and rational activity in the future, and will be protected under the laws and rules.
Trivial and the Substantive Ethics
The conduct rules for civil servants emphasise upon meticulously following the norms of good conduct. Some of these rules have remained unchanged since long and now appear to be ridiculous. No wonder, these are ignored by all. Likewise, there is a stress that official property; equipment and stationery should not be used for personal purposes. These relate, inter alia, to the use of official vehicles and phone. Such rules are `conspicuous, more in their violation than in their enforcement, and compared to broader issues of ethics and morality, these are at best, examples of trivial or petty morality. Not that they should be ignored but they must not be permitted to replace the more crucial ethical concerns of duty, fairness, objectivity and commitment. In matters of administrative ethics, occasionally we tend to be ‘penny wise and pound foolish’. It means we delve into the trivial rather than more pertinent and serious issues of ethics. We need to guard against this trend.
Another impediment in the way of enforcing discipline and codes of conduct is the tendency of employees’ unions to resist the managerial action against their members even when they have blatantly violated ethical norms. Assertive or aggressive unions can throttle any action, even a legitimate one, against their members. As a result, the supervisory level leadership in public systems gets exasperated and starts ignoring the unethical actions of their subordinates. In a political system, where employees’ unions are aligned with powerful political parties – whether in power or in opposition – administrative leadership refrains from taking a tough stand even against the culprit employees for fear of compulsive back-tracking or humiliation. It has been observed that collective bargaining agreements seriously jeopardize the authority of managers to discipline their employees. Occasionally, the courts also show greater concern for the protection of the so-called ‘Constitutional’ rights of the workers than those of the citizens-irrespective of the ethical issues involved.
Corruption is the abuse of official authority for personal gains. It is betrayal of public trust for protecting private interests. Corruption is currently viewed as a universal phenomenon, although the nature and quantum of corruption differ from nation to nation. The international and the Indian national press is replete with instances of corruption in government. Politicians and administrators are generally in league with each other in perpetuating corruption. Citizens thus become the victims of immorality in governance. It also denotes the existence of corruption in cross-national settings.
In the Middle East and in India, because of the Mughal influence, baksheesh is a tip that is used to seek the favours of an administrative functionary at the lower level; Its name changes to dash in Western Africa. ‘Speed money’ in India implies a fee to expedite the processing of a governmental favour; la mordida or ‘the bite’ are popular forms of bribes in the Latin America; shtraff is the Russian version of a small bribe; la bustarella cannotes a little envelope (containing bribe) in Italy; while in Israel, ‘protekzi’” refers to the exploitation of personal contracts to achieve a favourable treatment from administrators (Rosembloom and Kravchuk, op.cit). In the United States – a country rated high on the integrity index of the Transparency International, one comes across strange term such as Watergate, Iran-Contragate and White-Watergate which refer to carrying favours and bribery.
Unfortunately, in India the standards of ethics in the governance system have differed staggeringly in proclamations and in practice. The Constitution, laws, policies, manifestoes of political parties and speeches of politicians are replete with direct or indirect references to ethical basis of governance, but in practice, however, there is a gross violation of moral precepts in the functioning of the politico-administrative system. The critical reasons behind administrative corruption are scaricity of what people want from public administrators and the inconveniences involved in the normal channels of administrative decisions. As Michael Johnston (1982) explains:
The demand for government’s rewards frequently exceeds the supply, and routine decision-making processes are lengthy, costly, and uncertain in their outcome. For these reasons, legally sanctioned decision-making processes constitute a ‘bottleneck’ between what people want and what they get. The temptation to get around the bottleneck – to speed things up and make favourable decisions more probable – is built into this relationship between government and society. To get around the bottleneck, one must use political influence – and corruption, which by definition cuts across established and legitimate processes, is a most effective form of influence.
Because of the scarcity of what people want from the government, they are willing to pay bribes in exchange for jobs, land, licences, quotas, admissions, passports, utility service connections etc. or even for getting them speedily or illegitimately. They may also bribe administrators for escaping arrests, punishments, fines or major inconveniences. All these are examples of a transactional corruption. This acquires frightening proportions when it becomes an accepted trait of the socio-cultural system.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was the American President from 1953 to 1961, had once warned his nation of the existence of a ‘military-industrial complex’, which promoted a culture of ‘transactional corruption’ based on quid pro quo. C. Wright Mills in his monumental work The Power Elite (1956) had also broached the issue of such alliances and their impact on government decision-making. In India, B.B. Vohra, the then Home Secretary of India, had presented in 1995, a report on the activities of crime syndicates/mafia organisations which had developed links with or were being protected by government functionaries and political personalities. The conclusions of the Vohra Committee reflect a moral crisis in the Indian governance system. Not that the decline is irreversible, strong and honest efforts can sincerely halt the process of decline. Certain Asian countries have already proven that it is possible to combat and curb corruption. It requires effective political and administrative will to do so.
Almost all kinds of political systems are affected by administrative corruption. (Heidenheimier, 1970). In totalitarian societies and military regimes, corruption might get concentrated at the higher echelons of party, military or civilian bureaucracy, while in democracies, it might spread throughout the system. In ‘Soft States’ particularly, political as well as administrative corruption has greater potentiality of percolating the governance system. Weak control and supervisory mechanisms cannot prevent corruption and consequently, these become its catalysts.
In a civic culture or democratic society like India’s, politicians who get elected on people’s support and vote, are primarily concerned with strengthening their constituencies, and thus are keen to dole out benefits to those who are their supporters. Administrators, on the other hand, are keener to follow the prescribed procedures. In situations of conflict between the politicians and administrators, there is either a stalemate, or eventually, the politicians win. But the most convenient course for the politician is to win over administration to their side and make them partners or collaborators in corruption. With the protective hands of politicians above them and with a temptation for gaining extra (illegitimate) benefits,
administrators consciously align with their political masters and indulge in corruption. Very rarely, do the honest and strong administrators stand up to the politician and refuse to succumb to politicians’ pressures and cajoling. Likewise, there may be only a few politicians who actually apply brakes to the bandwagon of administrative corruption.
One can often witness ‘Weather-cock’ syndrome in relation to government corruption. When the top rung of the political or administrative executive gets tough on corruption, the middle and lower level hierarchy in both the systems get cautious about issues of ethics. Greed is curbed by fear but only as long as fear is genuinely feared.
While corruption is endemic in government organisation, there is another ethical blemish that afflicts, though rarely, the administrative system. Certain government servants, working in sensitive organisations like ordinance factories, nuclear energy establishments and defence forces, may pass on critical secrets to enemies in exchange for pecuniary benefits or for the sale of extra-territorial loyalty. In contemporary times of global competition, even economic subversion is possible. There may be, within the government, attempts to subvert friendly relations with foreign countries. In extreme cases, civil servants may subvert certain government programmes like family planning or prevention of illegal migration. There can be many other cases involving ethical issues in public administration. Attempts should be made to devise strategies to combat such subversions.
New Public Management: A Counterview
The traditional Public Administration had laid great emphasis on efficiency and economy. Likewise, conventional Management Science was greatly concerned with productivity and performance. The New Public Management, with its Neo-Taylorism orientation, has focused almost exclusively on performance and results.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Al Gore, the U.S. Vice President, advocated through the National Performance Review’s (NPR) version of the NPM, that ethics implied achieving high degree of customer satisfaction. It believed that people – in government or outside – were basically honest and well intentioned and there was no need for wasting time and energy on focusing on corruption. Trusting them is bound to lead to a favourable climate for ethical behaviour. The cost of deterring corruption is too high in terms of red tape that such efforts create. The NPR underscored that reinventing government required innovations, which in turn implied deviations from the grooves of tradition. Distrusting and accusing people for their creative initiatives dampens their enthusiasm for innovation. Trusting the employees as well as the people they serve would help carve a more effective administrative system in the self-governing democracy (Gore 1993; 1995).
Al Gore seems to have transcended even Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory Y’ and created an image of a human being who is creative and honest. Naturally, such a person in government would not need measures of external control over him for he has internalised very well the canon of self-accountability. Even if we consider Al Gore’s portrayal of government personnel to be too idealistic, it has a lesson to offer. Should we not question our excessive concern with prevention of corruption and instead adopt a more balanced perspective on the issue of ethics? Does not an over-concern with corruption take our attention away from the more crucial issues of people’s welfare through innovative measures and well-intentioned initiatives on the part of public employees?
In other words, there are high costs of combating corruption that we should be conscious of. No doubt, such awareness should not cause a laxity in tackling corruption. Instead, it should help appreciate the value of promoting greater trust in public system. Trust begets trust. Optimum vigilance is a requisite to the reinforcement of a climate of trust for they are complementary and mutually supportive. It would appear that such an emphasis on trust and de-emphasis on control would be more applicable to societies having a higher level of integrity and probity in public life than to those, which have low standards of morality. Thus, there cannot be any uniform approach to tackling corruption in the governance system. Much would depend upon the levels of morality and rectitude prevailing in each society.
An important aspect of bureaucratic socialisation is training. As is well known, there are three kinds of training that an administrator undergoes. Here, we are not discussing pre-entry training such as provided in the professional educational stream. We are primarily concerned with training that is imparted and obtained after a person enters the administrative service. First is the induction training comprising foundational, institutional and field training organised soon after an administrator’s career starts. The second is in-service training that is imparted throughout the service career in the form of refresher courses, orientation programmes, seminars and conferences. The third is on-the job training that is subtly provided by job performance and observation. What is paradoxical is that despite a great deal of talk on ethical aspect of administration, the stress on ethical training in the induction training as well in-service training is woefully meager.
There is a pervasive feeling in the administrative circles that morality cannot be taught through training. May be this is true, but there is no way to prove or disprove it, since no concrete organised research has gone into it. We must not however abandon the option of ethical training and hence not take systematic initiatives to make ethics an integral and prominent part of induction as well as in-service training. Already, national and international training institutions have prepared modules on this theme. The need is to establish our faith in this kind of training and execute the idea with appropriate acumen and skill.
As for the on-the- job training, the impact on the mind-set of a government functionary of the immediate work-environment around him is immense. Principled and honest superiors and members of the peer group are bound to promote morality in the conduct of a government servant. Conversely, if the official ambience encourages ethical laxity and compromises, it becomes easier for the personnel to join the bandwagon of immorality. No wonder, certain departments such as Income Tax, Excise, Customs, Commercial Taxes, Public Works Department and Police are infamous for their low ethical standards, for the countervailing and corrective forces therein are feeble.
The question, which needs deliberation, is that can this situation change? No doubt, it can. The will and the efforts, however, must match the challenge. This is a tall order, but not too formidable to be real. Many nations, whether Kamal Pasha’s Turkey or contemporary South Korea have shown resilience in transforming their bureaucratic order and its attendant mind-set. Other countries can also follow suit, and they must.
In an open society, media can play an important role in highlighting unethical practices in the governance system. The role that Washington Post played in exposing the Watergate Scandal in USA earned laurels from all sections of society. In India,
The Indian Express, The Hindu and a few other newspapers have performed like active watchdogs over public affairs. Vernacular press has also acted responsibly in this respect. Recently, the sting operations by a few TV channels on the Commercial Taxes and Public Works Departments in Delhi have also brought the issues of cutting-edge level corruption to the centre-stage. The best part is that the government, the legislature and even the judiciary have started taking note of such reports and even action on most occasions has been initiated. What is needed is a rigorous follow-up of the action taken on such revelations by the media itself.
When A.D.Gorwala presented his report on Public Administration in India in 1951, he had emphasisd that integrity was one of the cardinal philosophical premises of good administration. It is paradoxical that despite visible decline of moral standards in public life, the mainstream reports on administrative reforms have not focused on ethical issues. Except for the Santhanam Committee report on the Prevention of Corruption in India in 1964 and a specific segmented report on the theme, the Railway Corruption Enquiry Committee by Acharya Kriplani in 1955, there have been no major efforts at recommending strategies for integrating moral values with the administrative system at various levels. True, the ARC report on Lok Pal and Lok Ayukta was published in 1966, but that again was confined to structural changes rather than bringing about a new ethical order in public systems.
In 2005, with the announcement of the intention of appointing a second Administrative Reforms Commission by the Manmohan Singh government, ethical concerns of public services are likely to be accorded a respectable place in the emergent inquiry on administrative reforms in the country. The need is to go beyond the general statements of administrative morality and be more meticulous in recommending modifications in laws, rules, structures and behavioural patterns in the specific context of individual departments or organisations. The issues of ethics in the Police Department, for instance, carries a distinctive character and possible solutions than, say, in the Education Department. This would further require a rigorous modification in the laws and procedures pertaining to specific functional areas.
How is the administrative ethics of the twenty-first century likely to be different from that of the twentieth century? The answer is to be found in the increasing convergence of ethical concerns at the cross-national level. Globalisation of the economic order is likely to pave the way for the globalisation of governance issues. Not that there would be universally uniform configurations of the governance systems, much less the bureaucratic systems. But with the mitigation of chasm among nations in the realm of the goals, philosophy and strategies of governance, the ethical concerns are likely to transcend international boundaries.
These will reflect the classical concerns of public administration like efficiency, responsibility, accountability and integrity along with the emergent beliefs in equity, justice, openness, compassion, altruism, responsiveness, human rights and human dignity. Hopefully, this would be instrumental to the blossoming of a new citizenship committed to the sustenance of administrative morality. Even for nurturing such a positive citizenship, public administration institution will have to act as facilitators and educators. That is the biggest challenge as well as an opportunity for the administrative system in the times to come.
Ethics is a comprehensive concept, encompassing all facets of administration. Emphasis on moral and ethical norms has been an integral part of our tradition. Though vices of corruption, malpractices and bureaupathologies have slowly creeped in our system, the combat measures have not been very effective. Administrative reforms measures have to be holistic enough taking into their purview questions on nature of work ethics, various dimensions of ethics, foci and concerns of ethics and also the nature of obstacles to ethical accountability.
For any governance system to be transparent, accountable, efficient and sensitive, a Code of Ethics in the form of service rules, procedural norms, and administrative strategies the requirement of the day is. It is not possible to bring into force a Code of Ethics if it is self-serving and is subject to constant external interference and manipulation. A certain degree of autonomy is a pre-requisite for any code to be successful. We are witnessing a change in the pattern of authority, obedience and discipline. Moreover, globalisation trends have brought in a kind of universalisation of ethical norms and values. Philosophy of governance has transcended international boundaries. Almost every rung of administration is involved in decision -making. The conflict between individual values, organisational standards and societal norms is clearly visible. Though the code may not reflect a consensus of opinion on ethical issues, it can still provide direction and advice with regard to ethical conduct and assist the administrators in analysing their options and alternatives in the right perspective. This Unit highlighted these very pertinent features.