Sunday, August 29, 2021
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Officers felt that frontline workers were better communicators than politicians. Image:  Shantanu Dutta/Wikimedia Commons

A survey of bureaucrats find that they are divided over whether sudden national lockdown was a good decision and if fear of law is essential for public compliance 

MOST IAS officers in India believe that states must have the autonomy to formulate their own responses based on their needs and capacities in case of emergencies like Covid-19. They regard speeches by politicians as the least effective while find frontline workers to be highly effective in communicating the right message to the public, found a survey of around 400 IAS officers by the Centre for Policy Research.

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged the government in many ways. Besides highlighting the shortcomings in health and social security infrastructure, it also required unprecedented coordination and collaboration at all levels of the system, along with decentralised action on
multiple fronts. Actions taken to control the pandemic, including physical distancing, lockdowns, and travel restrictions, also gave rise to economic and social distress.

Around 52 percent felt that national lockdown imposed last year should have been better planned while 47.7 percent deemed it to be the right action given the unpredictability of the situation and all possible impacts. A much higher number of former civil servants (68 percent) and officers from front runner state cadres (58 percent) like Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu considered taking the time to plan mitigation measures as the more appropriate approach.

Around 52% IAS officers felt that national lockdown imposed last year should have been better planned while 47.7% deemed it to be the right action

In general, IAS officers come across as highly motivated as 72 percent of serving officers felt that refusal to undertake assigned roles due to vulnerability and risk of exposure to infection should invite penal action. Also, 51 percent of serving officers were of the view that health system preparedness during the lockdown increased reasonably, while another 19.7 percent assessed the improvement to be substantial.

However, former officers were much more likely to judge the improvements to be marginal. IAS officers primarily attributed this enhanced performance to the ability to deploy all available resources towards a single cause, along with room provided for more autonomy in emergency situations.

There was near complete agreement among the officers (92.3 percent) that India had enough laws and rules, with 78.6 percent stating the need for better compliance by all and 13.7 percent arguing that there were in fact too many laws and rules and we could do with less.

A striking 83 percent agreed that states must have the autonomy to formulate their own responses based on their needs and capacities. At the individual level, 73 percent noted that during a national crisis, innovation in the interpretation of orders would win greater approval from superiors than strict adherence to procedure. 

Speeches by politicians ranked as the least effective communication mode, even below government orders and guidelines

The officers believed that a situation like the pandemic called for them to be active communicators and an overwhelming 86 percent did not think that anonymity in one’s duty was an appropriate position for IAS officers. Frontline workers ranked very highly and were considered only slightly less effective than public service announcements on TV and radio. Importantly, younger officers in charge of field administration valued frontline functionaries even more than senior officers.

Speeches by politicians ranked as the least effective mode, even below government orders and guidelines. Majority of civil servants (85 percent) chose mounting an effective communication campaign to secure people’s understanding and cooperation over strict enforcement of penal measures to curb people’s inherent tendencies towards indiscipline. Officers from frontrunner states and former officers were more inclined towards this strategy.

Around 55 percent felt it was the people’s understanding and willing cooperation that led to their compliance while 45 percent felt it was fear of the law.

92.3% felt that India had enough laws and rules, with 78.6% stating the need for better compliance by all and 13.7% arguing that there were in fact too many laws and rules and we could do with less

An overwhelming majority of IAS officers (87 percent) repose a high degree of trust in the state when it comes to collecting and using citizens’ data. This number shrinks significantly (to 54.5 percent) among former civil servants. However, the minority who were uncomfortable with the use of technology to collect citizens’ data, were highly committed to the principle of protecting privacy; 69 percent were clear that such data extraction would not be justified even during the Covid-19 crisis.

In response to a question regarding the granting of travel permits to influential people, 56.8 percent of serving officers agreed that while allowing the privileged to bypass the strict restrictions to contain the pandemic was unacceptable, denial would be considered by the system as an act of pettiness (20 percent), or even more likely, could cause adverse consequences (36.8 percent). The remaining 43.2 percent of officers expressed the view that the granting of such permits was a relatively trivial and harmless matter.

Around 60 percent officers considered NGOs and civil society critical partners in the Covid-19 response. Another 14.2 percent acknowledged their positive contributions, but also noted the increased regulatory burden on government. Only 12.8 percent of the officers expressed a strong negative opinion of NGOs and civil society calling their work to be driven by self-interest and self-promotion. In contrast, 53.2 percent held a largely negative view about private sector with 29.6 percent saying that they made no significant impact at all and 23.6 percent agreeing that private sector capitalised on the crisis to further their own interests. 

An overwhelming majority of IAS officers (87%) repose a high degree of trust in the state when it comes to collecting and using citizens’ data

Only 11 per cent officers felt that the private sector had gone out of its way in efforts to supply essential services while 35.8 percent acknowledged their contributions as valuable while noting the increased regulatory burden that the private sector also imposed on government during the pandemic.

There was a clear (72.4 percent) view among civil servants that media played a vital and positive role in the pandemic, of which 21.4 percent viewed the media as a responsible partner in the dissemination of information, while 51 percent acknowledged its very important role even though instances of misinformation compromised their larger contribution to some extent. Significantly fewer officers (27.6 percent) felt that media had played a negative role, of which 12.7 percent considered the media to have been actively damaging to efforts to manage the crisis.

Interestingly, a significantly higher proportion of former civil servants (38.7 percent) held a negative view of TV and print media on both counts: spreading misinformation (20.5 percent) and actively adding to the difficulties of crisis management due to irresponsible behaviour (18.2 percent).

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