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The outdated nature of bureaucracy


Despite its efforts, bureaucracy has emerged as a major concern for the ineffective response to the COVID-19 crisis.

In the 21st century, democratic countries are still relying on traditional bureaucracies to perform public policy formulation and implementation roles.


GS-II: Polity and Governance (Role of Civil Services in a Democracy, Government Interventions for Transparency and Accountability in governance)

Mains Questions:

Can it be said that the traditional bureaucracy in India is obsolete in present day public services? Critically examine the Weberian model of bureaucracy. (15 Marks)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. History of the Civil Services in India
  2. Weberian bureaucracy
  3. Issues with Weberian bureaucracy
  4. Limitations of outright privatization
  5. Way Forward: Collaborative governance

History of the Civil Services in India

  • According to Kautilya’s Arthasastra – The higher bureaucracy consisted of the mantrins and the amatyas. While the mantrins were the highest advisors to the King, the amatyas were the civil servants. The Arthasastra stipulates seven basic elements – Swamin (the ruler), Amatya (the bureaucracy), Janapada (territory), Durga (the fortified capital), Kosa (the treasury), Danda (the army), and Mitra (the ally) – of the administrative apparatus.
  • During Mughal era, the bureaucracy was primarily based on the mansabdari system, which was essentially a pool of civil servants available for civil or military deployment.
  • The big changes in the civil services in British India came with the implementation of Macaulay’s Report 1835 during the British rule which recommended that only the best and brightest would do for the Indian Civil Service, so as to serve the interest of British empire.
  • After independence Indian civil services system retained the elements of the British structure like a unified administrative system such as an open-entry system based on academic achievements, permanency of tenure.

Weberian bureaucracy

  • Traditional bureaucracy is still stuck with the leadership of position over leadership of function.
  • Leadership of function is when a person has expert knowledge of a particular responsibility in a particular situation. The role of the leader is to explain the situation instead of issuing orders.
  • Weberian bureaucracy prefers leadership based on position.

Extras: Follett’s Three types of Leadership

  1. Leadership of Position: is almost an automatic means of becoming a leader, position can provide power, with which the leader can produce results. Power may be official (the Mikado, an emperor) or delegated (Poo-Bah, a bureaucrat).
  2. Leadership of Function: sets people apart by some performing activities which distinguish them from others. Police, judges, magistrates, barristers and solicitors perform justice functions, doctors and others function in the medical profession.
  3. Leadership of Personality: can provide backing for a leader, particularly if the leader has the extreme form of personality, we term charisma, taken up for general use to explain why and how some people seem to be set apart from the mob by those around experiencing a near-divine attraction to the leader.

Issues with Weberian bureaucracy

Generalists over Specialists

  • A generalist officer (IAS and State civil service officials) is deemed an expert and as a result, superior, even though the officer can be (and is often) shifted between different departments or ministries reducing experience.
  • Specialists in every government department have to remain subordinate to the generalist officers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this weakness. Healthcare professionals who are specialists have been made to work under generalist officers and the policy options have been left to the generalists when they should be in the hands of the specialists.

Leadership of Function

  • Since Weberian Bureaucracy is stuck with “Leadership of Position” wherein a large amount of power is granted to the leader based on their title alone rather than experience/knowledge – this acts as a major limitation for decentralized governance which is more effective.
  • This has resulted in a situation where the bureaucracy has become an end in itself rather than a means to an end, which is, improved governance and socio-economic development of the society.

Rigid Adherence to Rules

  • The rigid adherence to rules in the traditional bureaucratic structure has been an area of major concern.
  • The strict adherence to process and rules has resulted in COVID-19 aid getting stuck in cumbersome clearance processes even during the pandemic.
  • The rigid emphasis on the following of rules and regulations and the fear of official sanctions have resulted in the rejection of innovation from public officials.

Limitations of outright privatization

  • In the light of the lacunae in the existent bureaucratic structure, there have been growing calls for a new public management in India, which promotes privatisation and managerial techniques of the private sector as an effective tool to seek improvements in public service delivery and governance.
  • However, it should be noted that outright privatization may not be a viable solution in India where there is social inequality and regional variations in development.
  • The private sector is driven by the motive of profits and hence would cater only to people and areas where their operations are financially viable. They would not be able to serve the poor due to his/her inability to pay for the private sector’s work.
  • Such an approach renders the state as a mere bystander among the multiple market players with accountability being constantly shifted, especially during a crisis. The COVID-19 crisis has shown that the private sector has failed in public service delivery.

Way Forward: Collaborative governance

  • The most appropriate administrative reform to ensure more effective public governance is aiming for collaborative governance in which the public sector, private players and civil society, especially public service organisations (NGOs), work together for effective public service delivery.
  • Such a system would ensure that there is no domination of public bureaucracy in policy formulation and implementation. This can help change the behaviour of bureaucracy towards governance and also help initiate public service reforms – relook at the generalist versus specialist debate, openness to reforms such as lateral entry and collaboration with a network of social actors.
  • In such a system the existing network of social actors and private players would take responsibility in various aspects of governance with public bureaucracy coordinating the efforts. Such a structure would allow the institutionalization of the critical role being played by civil society. This will help in scaling the impact of effective civil societies.
  • The collaboration of public bureaucracy with the private and social society has had a profound impact on public service delivery as seen in Green Revolution (M.S. Swaminathan), the White Revolution (Verghese Kurien), Aadhaar-enabled services (Nandan Nilekani) and the IT revolution (Sam Pitroda).

-Source: The Hindu

February 2024