Civil service: responsibility and decision-making

By TP Saran

Referring to a recent incident where the minister blamed public officers in… public, LEX pointed out that ‘the minister takes all the blame for anything going wrong in the ministry because he is responsible before the National Assembly for anything that is done, and even not done, at the level of the ministry. The officers who work at the ministry are supposed to be anonymous…It is simply not done that a minister says that “I am not responsible because an officer in my ministry has taken the decision and I do not agree with this decision or that an officer has done this.” The officer may take the decision or act on his own but the minister must assume the consequences of the decision or the action.’There are all kinds of decisions that are being taken daily in any ministry, and basically they are of two sorts: those that are concerned with the day-to-day running of the affairs of the ministry, what one could call operational decisions because they have to do with ensuring the smooth running of the operations of the ministry. The others are policy decisions that are either in line with government philosophy as captured in its programme or may have to be re-adjusted for whatever reason. In other words, the latter are decisions that may lead to a different line of action being taken and have more significant implications for the medium or long term, or a larger impact on the sector and the country as a whole.

Decision-making is a serious and delicate process, and no decision can ever be taken lightly. There are many considerations that go into sound decision-making, each having its own importance and in particular financial implications, and that is why there are public officers who are there to guide any minister as regards the rules and regulations that apply in any given situation. These rules are general ones that apply across the civil service as a whole, and specific ones that have got to do with the technicalities of the given sector.

No civil servant may act outside of these rules, but there are nuances of application in that a certain flexibility may be factored in based on the principle of the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Mature public officers are not, or should not be, like robots, and are expected to display a degree of understanding that transcends narrow barriers. That is where genuinely conscientious officers rise above ministers – but unfortunately in so doing may also come across his path, as he invariably rushes along it wearing ‘electoralist’ blinkers.

However, the fundamental principle remains that whoever takes a decision must assume the full responsibility for its consequences. And this is where the rub lies. All public officers working in the ‘administration’ at levels where they have to interact with or implement decisions made by ministers will be familiar with examples of decisions which are arbitrary and without any rationale, and yet are sought to be imposed without any consideration of the larger picture, not least the issue of equity and social justice. And it is quite well known that in spite of their frequent loud-mouthing about fairness and so on, this is the least concern of many a minister. Worse is that all too frequently a minister imposes a decision but is not prepared to assume the responsibility for the consequences of that decision: the easiest way out is to lay these at the feet of the public officer.

Public officers therefore have to develop either a broad back or thick skins. But as has been seen and will no doubt happen again and again, some can be broken and their careers ruined. Others get punitive transfers, but all that this does in certain cases is to shift problems elsewhere. Nevertheless, the principled public officer will know how to so consolidate his file that he can fully account for decisions taken ‘higher up,’ especially if these decisions are not implementable. And any self-respecting minister will think more than twice before forcing a responsible, mature public officer to carry out an instruction which has no logical basis.

These quite frequently can be verbal, or transmitted through an intermediary on a piece of scrap paper. That way, having left no trace, the minister can at a later date absolve himself totally if matters go wrong or out of hand. But they reckon without the perspicacity of their officers, who know that whether they are novices or have been in the seat for long enough, at any time they can act on such impulses. Experienced public officers cannot afford to react similarly, and must perforce find ways and means within the limits of existing parameters to counter such irrationalities and direct affairs in such a way as to minimize damage. They will get no thanks and no gratitude for it, least of all from ministers – and that is all the more reason that they have to be doubly cautious when carrying out instructions.

It helps to have a strong morale, and to protect oneself by a strict application of core principles that can be defended at any time in any forum. That is what rattles some people who have a tendency to think that their word can be taken as law. Everybody, even ministers, must realize that we are ever on a learning curve and must have the humility to stay there if we truly want to serve the country and the people and promote the national interest.

* Published in print edition on 5 September 2010

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