August 26, 2009

Authority, Responsibility and Trust : The ART of Red Tape

We come across, and frequently use, the phrase red tape and we know that it refers to the delay that is endemic to the bureaucratic process - but have you ever wondered why is that bureaucrats are so slow in doing things ?

Anybody who has visited a government office in India would of course attribute this delay to competence or corruption. More often than not, a little bit of speed money -- the chaipani -- has a magical effect and most red tape disappears. On the other hand, we do know that the best and brightest in the land are hesitant to join the government and so there does exist a certain lack of competence in administrative matters.

But let us be charitable for a while and assume that our bureaucrats are indeed competent and NOT corrupt : in that case should red tape not disappear from our lexicon ? But it does not and will not .. and here is why !

You ask a sarkari babu to buy a computer for his office and he ( or she ) will get tied up in knots ! Committees will be formed, specifications will be drawn up, tenders will be issued, evaluation committees will be set up, contracts will be "negotiated" ( OK, in this case without kickbacks), purchase orders will be issued, AMC contracts will be discussed and then -- and only then -- a single machine will arrive in the office -- the process will take not less than a month but more often than not three months.

But when the same sarkari babu sends his son to college and the son wants a computer, how long do you think the process will take ? Perhaps a day to check with a more knowledgeable colleague and then another day to make the purchase -- at most three days !

Why is there so much difference in these two cases ? In the second case both the AUTHORITY and the RESPONSIBILITY of buying the computer lies with the same person but in the first case, it lies with two different persons ( or different organisations)

This separation of responsibility and authority is the root cause of all bureaucratic delays in the government. The police are responsible for maintaining law and order but the authority to sanction the money lies with someone else. The PWD is responsible for repairing roads but authority lies somewhere else. And it is not just financial authority ( though that is the most important one). The authority to issue a formal circular ( to clarify some obscure point of view ) does not generally lie with the person who is supposed to act upon that obscure point of view.

Separation of responsibility and authority is not a bane for only the sarkari bureaucrat. Employees of private companies have to go through the same process but the delay and level of pain is less because in many cases the source of authority and the agent of responsibility is organisationally closer and in many cases the two entities merge into one office : a manager who is responsible for sales is also empowered with the authority to spend money.

So the separation between authority and responsibility is less and in many cases, it does not exist. Why is it so in private companies but not so in the bureaucratic bowels of the sarkar bahadur ? The answer lies in the third element of the ART of Red Tape : TRUST.

Owners of private companies -- as reflected in Boards -- have a level of TRUST in the their managers but the owners of the country -- as reflected in legislature -- do not trust the administrators. It is almost as if it is a self evident truth -- an axiom -- that a government servant cannot be trusted to do anything. You need to have a complex system of checks and balances -- the Vigilance Department, the CAG, the CBI -- to keep an eye on each other.

Authority, Responsibility and Trust -- unless we as a society can come to grips with these three factors and work out a way to harmonise their relationship, bureaucratic delays will continue and we will be left admiring the ART of Red Tape.

1 comment:

Sampat Jain said...

I have similar views and believe some authority, whatever the government feels appropriate should be given to the people who take responsibility.

We need to also see that the money spend by the government is tax-payer's money, so they need to be overcautious (but I am no where saying that currently government is taking any care before spending our hard earned money).