REPRIMAND IN PRIVATE, NEVER IN PUBLIC
The tour that the Indian cricket team undertook to England in 1974 has often been described as the most disastrous one in the history of Indian cricket. Apart from the losing the test matches badly, the side brought disgrace on itself on account of incidents outside the playing arena as well. One such incident took place at the reception hosted by B.K. Nehru, High Commissioner of India to England, where the team reached the venue almost two hours after the function began, ostensibly on account of having to attend another engagement and bad traffic.
When Ajit Wadekar, the Indian skipper, went inside to greet the High Commissioner and said, “Sir, we have come”, the miffed host, who was standing in the middle of invited guests, turned around and said, “If you have come, you can go”. Wadekar and the side promptly trooped out of the room but better sense soon prevailed and they were made to go back and attend the event which was, after all, organised in their honour.
Some years later, when Wadekar was asked about this episode, he said that while it was wrong on the part of the side to have reached late, it was unconscionable on the part of the High Commissioner to have ticked them off in front of the guests. “He could have called me inside the room and given me a piece of his mind; he should not have insulted the side in front of other guests,” said Wadekar, who had by then retired from the game.
These words of the former Indian skipper, who passed away in August, have remained in my mind ever since. After I joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1990, my first posting after probation was at a place called Hosur, which is situated at the border between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, about 40 kms from Bangalore.
My immediate superior was based at Coimbatore, 300 kms away, and so I had considerable freedom and autonomy in all matters relating to work. The only advice that my boss gave me when I called on him was as follows:“Raghavan, if you get so angry with someone that you wantto shout at him, call the person inside the room and give him a mouthful…never shout at any officer or staff in front of his colleagues or subordinates or the public”. As a young officer who was prone to being impatient with people with different levels of speed and competence, this was a tough act to perform. However, looking back, I believe this was the best bit of advice I had received from a senior officer on how to conduct myself.
All government departments are made up of a bureaucratic set-up with well-defined hierarchies, each with clearly prescribed responsibilities. Officers are appointed to government at various levels, with the top posts being filled through recruitment from the Common Civil Service examinations conducted by the Union Public Service Commission.
There would be a natural tendency on the part of such officers, who are part of the elite services, such as the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Police Service (IPS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), and the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IA&AS)among others, to look down upon those recruited to government jobs at lower levels through examinations and processes conducted at the state level. Though it is true that the young recruits from the IAS, IPS, and other services bring in considerable dynamism and fresh thinking into the working of the official machinery, the fact remains that the core work is done by people down the line of command who slog it out on the field religiously following the procedures and processes that are laid down in official manuals. While it is easy and at times popular to decry these procedures as being obsolete and time consuming, it goes without saying that they would need to be followed till they are replaced by more efficient and productive processes.
This conflict between the entrenched old guard who tend to stick to what they have been doing and the young men and women in a hurry is a constant feature of functioning in any hierarchy and this is more so in the case of government.
Recently a small video did the rounds in social media which showed a District Collector pulling up a Village Officer for not performing his duties in connection with flood relief measures properly. The video showed the young officer asking inconvenient questions to the village functionary in front of a crowd that had gathered to witness the public reprimand.
A person from the gathering complained that flood relief materials were not distributed properly where upon the Collector ordered the official to give clear answers to all the questions posed. The official stuttered and stammered when questioned in this manner, which angered the Collector further,who, in turn, raised the tone of his voice and used harsh words. The end result was the public humiliation of the official in front of the crowd. The fact that the video went viral and found mention in some newspapers and websites as well would have served to compound the disgrace and embarrassment of this hapless official.
There were plenty of “likes” and comments to this video clipping congratulating the District Collector for his actions. While this officer certainly deserves praise for visiting the location and verifying the progress of work being carried out, the post also raises the question as to whether the public berating of a junior colleague could have been avoided. It would certainly have been a better option for the Collector to listen to the crowd, assure them that action would be taken and pull up the erring official in private, within the confines of his room, if he found that the allegations were true. After all, it is the same official who has to visit the camps and locations and carry out the relief work and insulting him in public would not only make him a bitter man but also take away the little authority that he requires for carrying out his duties.
Some Malayalam movies had appeared in the 1990’s which depicted the stories of young administrators and police officers who took on the system and directly delivered justice to the public. The success of these movies served as an indicator about the angst and disappointment of the general public about the slow-moving government machinery. However, the solution to this problem lies in making the system responsive and efficient rather than indulging in solitary “Rambo” like actions.
Many such positive changes have happened in our country in the recent past in this regard. Until sometime a goa visit to the passport office and getting theprecious document was a challenge but the introduction of passport sewakendras where the whole procedure became automated has made the process easier, faster, and time-bound. Many similar measures have been implemented in other government departments, making delivery of services more efficient while at the same time monitoring the functioning of the officials in an objective manner.This has resulted in making life better for the public while improving the efficacy of the administrative machinery.
Government jobs still find the highest number of applicants. Barring a miniscule minority, those who seek jobs in government do so for stability in work and life, reasonable salaries, and an opportunity to do something good for society. All those who are recruited to government also possess the required educational qualifications.
Thus, it is not lack of education or social commitment that causes the government machinery to be inept and inefficient. It is the constant barrage of public humiliation and disgrace that officials are subjected to in their work environment that makes them insensitive, indifferent, and even corrupt. The remedy to this lies in making necessary corrections in the system and not in subjecting officials to more insults and abuses.
As Kerala undertakes a massive rebuilding exercise after the damages caused by the floods, the leaders and planners should focus on use of automation to make the delivery apparatus more efficient, transparent, and accountable.
I would not applaud the actions of the young District Collector even while giving him high marks for his sincerity and zeal, if only for the simple management principle that emasculating one’s own administrative apparatus is not the smartest way for achieving the goals of an organisation.