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India in Transition

Public Purpose and Accountability in the Indian State

Akshay Mangla
December 1, 2014

In an effort to enhance accountability within the state, Prime Minister Modi launched a new surveillance system to monitor the attendance of public employees. The Biometric Attendance System, which forms part of the government’s “Digital India” program, requires employees to clock their time in and out of the office using fingerprints and a unique attendance identity number that is connected to Aadhar.  At present, more than 50,000 central employees spread across 150 departments have enrolled in the program, and their daily comings and goings have been made public on the website: The dominant narrative, put forward by Indian media outlets, suggests that public employees are now on their toes. As many report, the Prime Minister has, himself, chosen to lead by example, clocking in long hours in the office and casting a stern eye on those who arrive late and leave early. Still, questions around how surveillance information will get used and what disciplinary actions may follow remain unclear.  The long-term goal, presumably, is to disrupt the prevailing culture of apathy and poor work ethic in sarkari offices.

It is worth taking a step back to reflect on the underlying ills facing the Indian bureaucracy, and whether public surveillance systems offer a cure. Even before that, it helps to consider the theory of bureaucratic behavior that informs the Biometric Attendance System. A longstanding body of research on bureaucracy suggests that the effort of public employees can be promoted through economic rewards and penalties. Central to this economic approach is the view that public employees, like all individuals, are pre-disposed to shirking, exerting minimal effort on the job.  The solution entails the use of hierarchical power to ensure compliance. With the appropriate systems and incentives in place, public officials at the top can monitor, discipline and extract effort from their subordinates.

In their book, Working, Shirking and Sabotage, political scientists John Brehm and Scott Gates offer an alternative perspective. Contrary to the economic model of bureaucracy and workplace compliance, they find that top-down rewards and punishments are insufficient. High performance at the workplace stems from bureaucrats’ own commitment to the work at hand, the degree of appreciation and esteem they receive from their peers, and the existence of professional standards. A parallel set of studies on private firms similarly find that an organizational ethos that encourages participation, decision-making, and feedback by subordinates improves organizational performance. In summary, this alternative approach thus takes bureaucratic norms and culture as the foundation for effective public administration.

India’s Biometric Attendance System draws its inspiration from the first of these models.  Control at the top, informed by biometric surveillance data, by that model, can inculcate a culture of high performance among lower echelons of the state. That approach conforms to what I refer to as India’s “legalistic” state. Legalism takes rule-bound behavior as a normative ideal. A legalistic state is guided by norms promoting the strict adherence to rules and hierarchies.  Deviations from rule-following are frowned upon as bureaucrats are encouraged to work according to official procedure. A legalistic model offers several pathways to low motivation among India’s public employees, including a lack of hierarchical oversight and discipline. In this case, the proposed solution is to use an employee surveillance mechanism to tighten the reigns within the state.

To be sure, India is not the only place where legalism prevails within the state. Cases vary widely across countries and time periods, from the Nigerian education bureaucracy today to the Chicago Police Department prior to institutional reforms that took place in the 1990s. Nor is legalism the only factor inhibiting the Indian state’s performance. The politicized system of bureaucratic posting and transfer is another inhibiting factor. By more standard measures of administrative capacity, such as the quantity of employees staffing various public agencies, the Indian state is demonstrably weak. Among these various limitations, the Modi government has chosen to address the problem of top-down oversight and discipline within the state. By ensuring a tighter adherence to the rules, employees may exert greater effort at work.

There is an element of truth to this theory. To function well, all states must, at minimum, be bound by rules. And yet, rules alone are not the defining feature of well-functioning states. Effective public agencies must have, inter alia, adequate human resources with skills, training and organizational capabilities for carrying out the tasks at hand. Perhaps more than anything, they require a sense of public purpose, a vision towards which public officials can strive, and against which they can measure their success. To provide such a vision is a fundamental role of leadership. And for all the good intentions behind it, India’s Biometric Attendance System conveys little in the way of public purpose.

It is hard to imagine how such a system could possibly engender a positive shift in work culture within the state. Take, for example, the high incidence of absence among government school teachers. With more than a quarter of these employees absent on any given day, India’s public education system is effectively crippled. To be sure, weak monitoring systems may embolden some teachers to shirk their duties. The absence of the danda alone cannot possibly explain such alarmingly high rates of absence, not to mention poor quality teaching. As a growing body of research has shown, public employees in India, particularly those at the front lines of service delivery, face an uphill battle that awards little public recognition.

My own interviews with 150 government primary school teachers reveal a broken system. Low motivation in this case is not due to weak monetary compensation. Government school teachers in India are paid more than five times the country’s mean per capita income. The comparable multiple for wealthy countries is 1.2. Inadequate physical facilities, unrealistic goals and little professional guidance together produce an overwhelming sense of defeat. Missing entirely are the intangible rewards associated with work.  Professional norms and standards, which traditionally provided school teachers with sense of morale and professional identity, have been decimated by a school system that no longer treats teaching as a profession worthy of status. Despite all of this, school teachers who are sincere and take on these daily obstacles earn little recognition for their efforts.

The potential long-term ramifications of the public employee surveillance system need to be considered as well. For one, the system may further stifle the kind of bureaucratic innovations necessary to address the country’s most pressing problems. Innovation calls for creativity, collaboration, and productive forms of rule-breaking. Getting public agencies to work collaboratively is hard enough already. As it currently stands, legalistic norms within the Indian state make it incredibly difficult for public officials to coordinate efforts across agencies and solve problems collectively. Agencies vehemently defend their internal hierarchies and external fields of influence.

To be sure, problems of poor inter-agency coordination can be found in many, if not all, countries. Yet this problem takes on a particularly acute form in India, where the adherence to hierarchy and divisional boundaries within the state has historical roots. The modern administrative apparatus in India was created and hierarchically arranged for the express purpose of maintaining law and order on behalf of economic elites, not to provide economic and social services for the general public. Today, one can observe variation on that front across Indian states. Public bureaucracies in states as far apart as Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh have developed reputations for service delivery. In both cases, bureaucratic norms that encourage local problem-solving are a significant driver of service delivery. Beyond India, Judith Tendler’s classic work on good governance in Brazil shows that informal rewards and recognition can motivate public service employees, even in the most difficult circumstances. 

Although monitoring attendance is important, how a Biometric Attendance System can produce the kind of bureaucratic effort needed to implement public policy well is difficult to apprehend. Imagine that I, a subordinate official, want to visit my colleague in another department to have an informal discussion on how best to implement a given policy. The knowledge that I am being monitored and evaluated based on my whereabouts may deter me from doing anything that could be misconstrued as “unofficial” by my seniors, who in turn may lack the contextual knowledge to make a judgment call. Consequently, risk-averse bureaucrats may find it preferable to stick to their official roles and avoid spending the extra effort to coordinate and solve problems.

A second, and perhaps even more pernicious consequence of the Biometric Attendance System is the culture of distrust that it can breed. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta rightly noted in a recent editorial in the Indian Express, the short-term discipline that such a system induces comes at the price of long-term fear and suspicion. What does it say to India’s public employees that the highest office of the country does not trust them? One might argue that the Biometric Attendance System would be acceptable to employees, as it provides further indication of the current government’s seriousness. And in any case, the policy could lead to higher attendance.

One must ask whether attendance is a high enough bar, and whether the benefits of meeting that bar through instruments like surveillance outweigh the costs. The costs involve a downward dynamic in which institutionalized distrust induces further suspicion and fear within the state, generating additional rules and tighter systems of institutional oversight. Elements of a downward dynamic are already visible in India’s legalistic state. From the Lokpal Bill’s attempt to combat corruption through the creation of a super-agency, to the Right to Education Act’s itemized checklist of school norms, the state has learned to respond to governance failures with more and ever tighter regulatory prescriptions. And yet, these formal rules are dis-embedded from the informal norms, relations, and realities that shape policy implementation.

The Modi government has, in its tenure thus far, raised several issues of public importance including sanitation, gender violence, and most recently, the performance of the state itself. The Prime Minister’s zeal cannot, on its own, activate high performance across the state machinery.  What it can do is provide the political support that policymakers need to develop more comprehensive administrative reforms that address the Indian state’s systematically poor performance. These reforms include building the skill base of the bureaucracy, establishing boards that maintain professional standards, strengthening the participation of subordinate employees, and not least of all, providing the intangible rewards and recognition that sustains effort. Policies that aim to generate accountability via fear cannot substitute for the lack of public purpose within the Indian state. 

Akshay Mangla is an Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

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