Bringing Back Public Trust

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“Sufficient food, a strong army, and the trust of the people…. without the trust of the people, no government could survive,” replied the master, when Zigong asked Confucius about the essence of government. Only a handful of corrupt politicians, elite and the professionals are responsible for a litany of betrayals of public trust in institutions and governments. Unfortunately these handfuls of unscrupulous have their way with the system because of the silence of the non-corrupt.

Public trust in government is the essence of good governance. It defines the relationship between citizens and government and determines the acceptability and effectiveness of public policies.  When citizens trust their government, they are more likely to have faith in the long-term benefits of public policies even when some policies appear to be counterproductive in the short term.

Trust in institutions is an extension of trust in people. People trust a company, for instance, because their interactions with it have been successful, even when they don’t see the faces of the people behind those interactions.  Government is no different. People know the functionaries at the top though they may trust some and not some. People also get to know some others, usually in the lower hierarchies with whom they interact on emails, phones and over the counter.

The problem is that lower level bureaucrats have much less power or authority than what people think or maybe wish for them to have, a typical boundary-level problem. These bureaucrats are bound by  a system that’s designed  to work top-down and is not  adept at handling anything outside  “business as usual”. Negative incentives to be open as a public servant are too many to count. They may have empathy with people but they do not have the means to do something about it.  Most of them therefore take on the mask of arrogance, aloofness and apathy to people primarily to cover up for their inadequacy and protect their self-esteem. A peek behind their institutional mask, most of them have the same concerns and desire for improvement and positive change as those who demand that change from them. They are concerned citizens, like the rest of the people. Exceptions aside, most public servants would love to see the same things that frustrate the rest of people, fixed.

Transparency and participation are no longer an option but two indispensable pillars in the trust relationships between citizens and institutions.  People are not content with voting every 4-5 years: they demand, and have come to expect, spaces to present their concerns and ideas. This enables elements of direct democracy – where decision-making power of a person is not delegate to a distanced government, rather the person is part of the decision-making.  Citizens’ lack of confidence and distance from institutions and their distrust in the ability of those that should meet their needs cannot be ignored. To restore trust we need to recreate governance from the ground up, and put citizens (back) at the heart of institutions.

Unfortunately, the democratic values and principles associated with reforms oriented to increasing transparency, accountability and modernization processes – are unknown or not well-understood by public servants, especially those in lower level positions. These officials often hold positions attending the public and receiving information requests, which means their lack of knowledge and understanding can limit the citizens’ ability to fully exercise their rights. It implies that along with transparency reforms, more serious efforts need to be made to train public servants in the structures of the bureaucratic system.

Similar challenges are faced by the general public, where there is a pronounced lack of knowledge and understanding of the norms, mechanisms and obligations associated with these institutional efforts, as well as a strong and growing scepticism about their potential to increase accountability or prevent corruption.  Sadly, many policymakers have acted as if participation is their gift to bestow upon constituents. For them, transparency or participation clashes with the institutional culture.

The correction has to begin at that level of government where interaction with citizens is greatest and let the transformation grow from there. The solution therefore lies in focussing on transparency, participation, inclusion and fairness at the lower levels of bureaucracy.  There are always some “Champions” within the government. Only a few of them are visible. Need is to find them in every nook and cranny of government so that they are not lone champions, but a coalition of reformers.

Public servants have to be empowered to work with other actors, and permissions and structures enabling them to act upon external inputs anytime should be institutionalised. Introducing regulations to hold good  quality co-creation processes, ensuring funding and  mechanisms to act on citizen feedback, collecting  feedback from public servants, and recognizing  and encouraging innovative practices of co-creation  or even whistle-blowing, can go a long  way in empowering lower level public servants. If we allow those in government (not to be  confused with those in  power!) to act openly, to  be honest, to admit the  unknown and embrace the  problematic, then they will  be able to build the trust  that is desperately being sought,  from the bottom-up.

And what is about the top-level bureaucracy and those in power? They will only be surprised and happy about the success of a project which was implemented with all proper approvals, but without them having to get involved at all. They would jump upon the opportunity of showcasing to their constituents, such success, as an example of their efficient and effective governance.

Government can earn trust only when change is visible and reform hits like a wave – fast; but ready to dissolve should the wave (reform) face an obstacle. There is no place for arrogance and obstinacy in governance.


 

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Governance, Activism and Appeasement

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Governance is the function of the state. The body of the State comprises of three distinct organ systems called the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. These organs systems are designed to be independent of each other, yet the three have to work in an interdependent fashion for the delivery of good governance.

Judiciary is a pure hierarchy based structure. Executive is a delegated decentralization. Legislature is a unitary federal structure. Each of these organ systems is fallible due to obstinacy and activism.

The Constitution provides the legitimate power to each of these systems as well as the guidance for their interplay. Legislature has the Reference power, a fabled power from the people, and can use it, but only sparingly, to alter the constitutional guidance on interplay between the three organ systems or the quantum of power with the Executive. However, it is the Executive that has the dominant powers of Information, Reward, Expertise and Coercion. Judiciary has the Referent power to define the constitutionality of actions of the Legislature and the Executive thereby providing some checks and balance.

The command of the Executive is with the leadership (elected, appointed or nominated) of the Legislature. In practice, therefore it is the command of the Executive that informs the direction of the functioning of the legislature.

The Executive at times intends to act in any arbitrary, partisan or unjust fashion. The command of the Executive does not find itself helpless in such instances, before the Legislature because it adopts the route of executive ordinances that bypass Legislature or manages the Legislature to endorse Executive Action. But the Executive does not have such comfort with the Judiciary. Judiciary usually strikes down arbitrary, partisan or unjust actions of the Executive using its legitimate and referent power. In such situations, more often than not, it is the command of the Executive that suffers from a perception of helplessness in spite of all the power bases on its side.

Executive reaction in such situations usually ranges from alleging Activism (in case of judicial correction) to Over-reach (in case of judicial prevention). In more extreme situations, the Executive partners with Legislature to alter the Constitution itself (on an average more than once a year).

Just on the sidelines, an individual can be a part of the Legislature at 21 years of age without any formal education or experience provided one is so elected by an electorate half of which is illiterate and a quarter of which is economically a destitute. One could be the commander of the Executive if one is so accepted by the political party having a majority in the lower house of Parliament. Again 21 years of age without any formal education will suffice. However to be in the apex of Judiciary, one needs to be above 45 years of age with relevant law degree and professional experience. An individual continues in Legislature after a review every five years by the electorate. The continuation of Leadership of the Executive is determined by the political usefulness of the individual to the ruling political party and is therefore continuously under evaluation. An individual in the Apex Judicial system once there is quite sure of being there but has to necessarily quit at 65 year of age, something that is not applicable to legislature or command of Executive.

Could there be a reason here that the “Appeasement” is an allegation against the Legislature and the Executive but not against the Judiciary?

 


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Ethos of Indian Millennials

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An Indian of the post-independence era has evolved into a person of beliefs, aspirations, attitudes and values contrary to those of an Indian from the pre-independence era. Self-denial for larger public good has been replaced by self-gratification for personal good. The old notion, going back to antiquity, that the public sphere derives its nobility from a separation between the service of public interests and the pursuit of private interests, has been replaced by its opposite. Today an individual is king, and ideologies that emphasise the collective dimension of human destiny have lost their potency.

A perfunctory analysis into the background of the incumbents in top public offices today would show that quite a few of them are not career politicians but persons considered to have been successful in their other careers. Private success is now the best qualification for public office. This may even be true for other countries. Trump (USA), Macron (France) and Duterte (Philippines) have little in common except for one characteristic- they are successful outsiders who were not professional politicians. This new emphasis reflects the triumph of individual agency.

 

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The empowerment of individuals puts an enormous responsibility on every human being: not only does it ignore the importance of luck in success, but it neglects obvious social factors. Better is a lazy boy born into a rich family than a bright young girl born into abject poverty? Still better it is to be born in a social group that could benefit from affirmative action. Notwithstanding its rationale and benefits, affirmative action class driven and is not individual driven. Since opportunities are for individuals, affirmative action does create a flawed competition for the individuals belonging to the non-beneficiary classes. And to tell the losers of that flawed competition that they should try harder adds insult to injury. Hence the growing anger of all those who are left behind.

That anger manifests itself in different forms. At one extreme is the terrorism. Most people, however, will never become terrorists, and their reaction to the cult of individual success, especially when individual success is out of reach, goes in the opposite direction: they want to restore a collective dimension to human destiny. Some find the answer in religious fanaticism like the love-jihad, cow-vigilantism, Ram-temple or the Babri-mosque, while others seek their counter in nationalism with the issues like Vande-mataram to Yoga to Hindustan. Such mindsets expose the vulnerability of societies in which the individual is the be-all and end-all. Human beings cannot experience far away tragedies as a personal loss. However the angry individuals react to any crisis as a global issue, and yet they are unable to manage solidarity within increasingly diverse national communities.

Indian elections are being fought more on a Presidential style, i.e., individualistic and not ideology. Electoral outcomes don’t throw up leaders, the leader throws up the electoral outcomes. Such leaders are being given the responsibility of governance, without the checks and balance of democratic institutions. Today leaders are expected to produce change against institutions rather than through them.

What Margaret Thatcher said in 1987 has come to define the current Indian ethos: “… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

For the Millennial Indian – there is no ‘we’ or ‘us’ if there is no ‘I’ or ‘me’ in it.

 

 

(Published earlier as “Sprouting Post-Modern Indian Ethos“)

I Trust My India

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People around the world are distrusting of their governments. Declining trust has deep roots and is being caused by many factors – “Capture by the Politicians”, “Capture by the Elite”, and “Hypocrisy of the Professionals”.

Today “Capture by the Politicians” is a reality. It is a myth that there are three organs of State – the legislature, the executive and the judiciary – and all three are equal and independent. Politicians wish to be elected as legislators and citizens elect them as legislators. But the legislators become the heads of Executive. Executive then shapes the course of legislature and keeps trying to control the judiciary.  Politicians as legislators and Executive are then able to forge a corrupt nexus with the business and the elite. They together control the law and its enforcement. There has been a litany of betrayals of people’s trust through such nexus. From corruption in government and in state-owned enterprises, financial controls and governance are compromised because many executive appointments to boards and committees are political and not based on competence, experience and integrity.

Businesses of the Elite have hidden the deepest corruption and injustice in our democracy since the 1990s. Globalization has been a double-edged sword. The world is richer because of it, but it has advanced an economic order that has resulted in growing inequality and striking division between the haves and have-nots. It leaves hundreds of millions behind, not least when inequality perpetuates the power of elites whilst hollowing out the hopes of many people for their children’s futures. Smoky cabins of such deprived people are not the porticos of good moral, ethical and social conduct for they do not see any reward in such behaviour except further loss of opportunity and more injustice coming their way. The fate of the ordinary citizens has been “captured by the Elite.”

Professionals like the Doctors, Lawyers, Engineers, Chartered Accountants, and journalists are the guardians of the citizens, who have sworn to uphold ethics in their profession. Unfortunately our own people, when they got a chance to build the nation as professionals, rather than being true to their professions, became servants of the Elite and the Politician. The professionals either became complete accomplices in the process of Capture by the politician and capture by the elite or just kept silent. Truth hurts but silence kills. That is one of the things that have really hurt the country. They did not pause for one moment and ask themselves how they could break the code of their professional ethics, their oath, and the responsibility they have to protect the people and not ally with the traitors who have captured our state and corporations. This is the height of hypocrisy; and now some of them want to come to lecture us about leadership and accountability. There are many politicians, elites and professionals who have carried the dagger of betrayal and plunged it deep into our backs.

 

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Governments both at the national and the state level need to model change from the inside out to build trust with citizens. Some of the great change initiatives of the government designed as inside-out models include Aadhaar, OROP for the Defence Personnel, surgical strike, JanDhan, and the GST. Unfortunately however, the more visible change initiatives of the Government that have been outside-in and not inside-out models are Demonetisation, Make-in-India, Skills-Development, Bullet-train and Action against the Black-money, all leading to skepticism and distrust amongst the citizens.

People have solutions – but too often they are not being heard. The dearth of informed public debate and collective action to solve challenges has perpetuated the sense of disenfranchisement. People’s space to respectfully debate and disagree is constrained by a lack of opportunity and meaningful arenas in which to do so. In many cases, dissenting voices are met with heightened crackdowns – at worst, violently.

The complex challenges our country faces call upon formidable leadership from our government. But government alone cannot solve them all. The government needs the ideas, wisdom and commitment of people. We know more is possible. It has to be more action than hanging a portrait of the Mahatma or Ambedkar or Upadhyay in the office or the boardroom.

 


Read other posts:

  • P&L Duty of Universities is in National Interest
  • Power and Corruption
  • Bringing back Public Trust
  • Unravelling the Indian MBA
  • Governance, Activism and Appeasement

 

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