I have spent almost four decades in government. But in my knowledge, never before has a campaign to introduce and spread ethics in public service been attempted by any department, or ministry, or public enterprise or even by a state government. Therefore, what started on July 27 in the Rail Museum was a unique experiment in public governance in India.
On that day, the mission of ‘Satyanishtha’ was unveiled by the Chairman of the Railway Board in presence of the top brass of Indian Railways as well as supervisor level officers. It was not a much advertised event, but was carefully crafted to reach far and wide in the Railway universe. The event was webcast live all over the country and conveyed to various formations of Indian Railways through video conferencing. In due course, the mission of Satyanishtha is sought to be carried to every railway employee through an ingenious mechanism devised in Railway Board under the leadership of the Chairman.
The ethics of public service or satyanishtha, or by any other name you choose to call it, is qualitatively different from vigilance. While vigilance asks you not to do the wrong thing, ethics urges you to do the right thing. On one hand, there are cases of ethical failure that ought to be caught by the vigilance. On the other, there are cases of ethical excellence which ought to be celebrated by the civil servants. There is a need to bring ethics to the centre stage in the working of the government, and in the conduct of the public servant. It should be accorded the highest priority in governance reforms. In fact, if ethical working could be introduced in the systems and processes of government, we may not need any other reforms.
After much study and reflection, I have come to the realisation that ‘Ethics of Public Service’ is a linguistic abstraction. It means what meaning you give to it. Apart from philosophers like Kant and Mill, many social and political thinkers have given different interpretations of ethics in the past. The internet is replete with hundreds of variants floating on it. It can be defined by whatever we want it to mean for our purpose. So they are going to try to evolve their own definition of satyanishtha, which satisfies their concerns regarding public services.
Everyone is talking about ethics these days. Even news channels and newspapers are commenting on the morality of government’s actions. Example of Major Letul Gogoi tying a protester in front of his jeep to prevent bloodshed and rescue a polling party in Srinagar is cited. This is an example of Robin Hood ethics or utilitarian ethics, where ends justify means.
Ethics is gaining prominence in the discourse about governance today. There is a perception that standards in public life are in decline. This raises questions about the costs of misconduct on the part of those who have been entrusted with promoting public interest and welfare. These costs are losses in trust and confidence in public institutions and losses in precious resources which were meant to sustain economic and social development.
Twenty years ago, the international Colloquium in Brazil was perhaps the first global initiative to discuss how to deal with the issue of unethical conduct in the public governance with civil servants. The main conclusions of the deliberations among civil servants of several nations included the need to implement the laws and regulations, though it was not considered the sole remedy for ethical failures. It also emphasized upon the need for an educational process, including a teaching of ethics at all levels, in which all the arms of government should be involved.
The Colloquium also insisted on creation of new institutional channels of communication with civil society, with a view to allow the public to register complaints of ethical violations by government functionaries.
In the Indian context, it is of utmost importance to undertake redefining values, developing new or modified standards of behaviour and inspiring the civil servants to achieve higher levels of ethical conduct. Within the overall paradigm of the delivery of public goods and services, the role of civil service is to serve the citizen as a stakeholder and a client of its services. Its function is primarily to meet the legitimate demands of the citizen. In order to achieve this ultimate goal, the civil service should try to use more delegation and decentralised decision making, more horizontal structures and incentives for ethical excellence in service delivery.
Now, a beginning of ethical revival seems to have been made in public governance through an imaginative idiom—satyanishtha. It does not use the much-abused anti-corruption jargon, but insists on the inner calling of every individual civil servant not with-standing her placement and status in the hierarchy. The inaugural interaction was, therefore, equally divided between the senior most railway officers and cutting edge supervisors.
THE idea to be celebrated was that everybody matters. Everyone is a leader. Leadership does not come with higher position or more perquisites, bigger staff car or larger office. It comes from taking care of the people around you. Many highly placed individuals in a bureaucracy are not leaders at all. Their orders are obeyed because of the authority they wield, but they will never be followed. On the contrary, persons at lower rungs of the hierarchical ladder can be absolutely leaders. A clerk in Mallapuram district in Kerala is a leader when he announces that ‘he gets Rs. 811 per day from the government to do his job honestly’ and refuses to accept any bribe. The under training police constables in Moradabad become leaders when they collectively contribute to buy a cycle for a hawker who lost his cycle.
One hopes that this initiative of disseminating ethics in public service becomes contagious.
Endpoint: We cannot stop talking about what’s wrong. But can we also talk about what’s right?