The curse of burrowing deep
Donald Trump prepares to take over as the the 45th president of US on January 20 and with him will come around 4,000 new appointees in the civil service. Of these, 1,000 odd key positions will be filled with Senate approval. Meanwhile the outgoing President Obama will try and keep as many of his appointees in the government and move them into career federal service positions. Once these political appointees are moved to the career civil services jobs, much like in India, they are difficult to fire. Trump, in his draw and shoot style, has already blown the trumpet and vowed that he would seek the Senate support and even push for the change of law so that this phenomenon called “burrowing” is stopped. By burrowing, the political appointees try to move to career civil service roles so that they can continue till retirement in the government even as their political master has long lost and gone.
The House Oversight and the Government Reforms committee is already looking closely into how many people Obama is pushing into permanent roles and has asked 23 executive departments to send the list of Obama appointees wishing now to slide into career civil service roles. Trump and a large number of Republicans believe that an administration still manned with Obama appointees at the middle and lower levels will only be a source of hindrance to implementation of the Trump policies, many of which — specially in the key areas of US involvement in the middle east, US relations with Russia, US stand on Israel, climate change, drilling for oil — are at significant odds with President Obama. They believe and not without merit that the un-elected bureaucrats, who have come as part of the largesse of the past regime, should not be allowed to put road blocks on the agenda of the newly elected, who at this point represent the aspirations of the electorate.

The US of A as the world has known: big, powerful, loved or hated, but never ignored has been largely built around the script of movement, innovation and as an important sub-script, it abhors permanence. Permanence, they say, breeds mediocrity and security of jobs is a curse to innovation and performance. With this fundamental, it is no wonder everytime a new president takes over, there is a shake up and a controversy on the deleterious effects of Burrowing brews. The established line of argument borrowed from more sedate English traditions has been very different in India. Here we believe that permanence of jobs in the civil service, further fortified by assured tenures, promotions and pay hike helps create an independent bureaucracy.
Implicit in this is the assumption that elected politicians are a scheming lot and if you do not have a protected bureaucracy, the elected will manipulate the system and harm the electorate. If this was correct, then it is legitimate to ask if in our 70th year as a nation, our independent and privileged civil service has given us any great governance. Or has it thrust a kind of tyranny of the un-elected, who
are not accountable to the people? Many would say that accountability to the people is a hoot and the bureaucracy is instead wedded to departmental culture, love for procedure and lust
for agrandisement, which only comes from assured privileges.

It has also led to other not so pleasant consequences. With no compulsion on delivery, you can put in effort minimal enough to survive in your job. It means you keep a fervour of activity alive without much tangible returns of it, for you cannot be shaken from your protected perch. This is not exactly a great thing for a progressing country inundated with complex problems which require quick, decisive and innovative decision-making. The stranglehold of institutionally-protected bureaucracy also rules out lateral induction of talent which the system such as in US allows. The cadre system in the IAS, IPS, revenue services is tight and creates its own brahminical sub-culture. So you may be a great domain expert and the forward-looking government may induct you in the right position. But in all likelihood, you won’t be allowed to function by the entrenched bureaucracy which being well versed with the system, also knows how to game it.
We live in a highly competitive and knowledge-based economy, where the domain competencies are becoming narrower and sharper. Intellectual in-breeding and incest of the Indian bureaucracy due to its reluctance to engage with the larger world outside shows in slippages and shoddy administration. It also shows the growing disconnect between the executive arm of government and the people. With time, this has also started manifesting itself in the politics of the country, where the leaders who the electorate feels are noisy and resolute and can take on the government on their behalf are getting elected. The MLA, who is able to scare a DSP gets the confidence of the voters just as an Arvind Kejriwal who declares that most civil servants are corrupt rides home to power. Narendra Modi swept to power because he looked more decisive compared to Manmohan Singh to take on the silent powers in Delhi. So where is the positive impact a permanent civil service was supposed to have on governance? What about the faith its independence was supposed to generate among people? Perhaps, it is time such sacrosanct notions on permanance of civil services are questioned and their skill set contemporised. Looking at other prosperous democracies for examples would not hurt. If not solutions, that might at least provide, pointers to the right direction.
The author is a former IPS officer and now an entrepreneur
Sachin Shridhar