According to surveys, public procurement, access to public services, and regulation in India are prone to high degrees of bias, corruption and misalignment with public welfare. An ideal at the heart of good governance reform is “public accountability”;
we frequently hear calls for greater accountability of government actors – both within public institutions and to the public at large.
In Episode 7 of the DAKSH podcast, we speak to Dr. CK Mathew, a former bureaucrat and current academic, researcher and author with an interest in challenges before the Indian administrative state. Dr. Mathew weighs on how he thinks about public accountability – who owes it, to whom and how; how it affects the morale and functioning of administrators, and what elements are necessary for ‘accountability’ to drive towards improved development indicators. Drawing on his experience working with politicians and civil society, Dr. Mathew explores institutional and public experiments with accountability and unpacks what this concept means to him.
Smita: Welcome to the DAKSH Podcast. I’m Smita, and I work with DAKSH which is a Bangalore based nonprofit working on judicial reforms and access to justice. According to the Global Corruption Perception Index, India top Asia in 2020. India was perceived to have the highest overall rates of bribery and of citizens using personal connections to obtain official documents, public services, and while dealing with the police and courts. Major scams in land, coal allocation, defense procurement and financial institutions have come to dominate public conversation over the last couple of decades. However, former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai believes that the public institutions put in place to check them are starting to work, bringing big ticket corruption into the light and holding parties accountable. Through a myriad of interconnected processes, the public is able to see and grapple with the consequences of actions taken by government actors at different levels. As public actors get more specialized or technical, the idea of who they are accountable to and how, is expanding. Going far beyond the classical idea in representative democracy of accountability through the ballot box. However, it’s not always clear how this impacts policymaking and development outcomes in practical terms. In this episode, we explore the question of what public accountability is with Dr. CK Mathew, retired Indian Administrative Services Officer. In our conversation, we delved into what public accountability means to the politician, the bureaucrat, the researcher, and interested and engaged members of the public. We explored its legacy and evolution over time, including how more recent developments, like open data and creation of comparative indexes and rankings have changed the relationship between citizens and the state. And finally, we consider some limitations and ongoing challenges to an idea which is sometimes held up almost as a single point reform agenda to improve the quality of governance.
Thank you so much for joining us. To begin, I wanted to briefly ask what accountability of public institutions means to you. Within the current context, it is kind of used in a lot of different ways by many different people. So what do you think is most central to or the most important element of public accountability?
Dr. C.K. Mathew: Now this word, simple though, as it may sound, has many layers and many nuances as you go deeper and deeper into it. First, we should get rid of the word accountability in the context of the private sector. We are now looking at me as a retired officer from the government, within the public sector context. So let’s push out the private sector because accountability means something very different when you’re working in the private space. There possibly the accountability is towards your boss, or it may be towards the balance sheet, maximizing your profit. But in a public sector, where public finances are involved, and you’re working towards the common good, public interest, it has many levels of meaning. And let me try to take you through some of them. In a very large and philosophical context, the ultimate authority lies with We the People. Our Constitution begins with ‘We the People’. So in a very broad context, every public servant is accountable to the people. The next level we come down to is governance. Governance of the country and the various systems working towards the benefit of the common man. Below that we may even talk about, you know, within the Constitution, you have these two big pillars, the fundamental rights and the Directive Principles. Fundamental rights given to citizens of our country, and within the government sector within the public sector, each public servant owes some responsibility to the principles of fundamental rights. Similarly, we have Directive Principles, the state has to move towards a certain goal. And are we as public servants fulfilling that goal or trying to fulfill that goal? So there is a certain sense of accountability there as well. But ultimately, when it boils down to the lowest level, it is really a question of public expenditure. Public expenditure is ultimately where people ask questions, because spending crores of money, are you getting the outcomes that you want? Or is that money being pilfered away? So to a public sector official, when it comes down to brass tacks, it is really a question of how public expenditure is made in the best interests of the common man and common interest, keeping all sobriety and transparency and objectivity in mind. So we need to look at accountability at different levels in different contexts and what it means as you are a citizen of the country and working for the public good, what does it mean to you? It has several meanings.
Smita: So you’ve mentioned these as the ways of looking at public accountability. But as the general public, drawing on your experiences as a bureaucrat, but also being involved in kind of research and public advocacy, how do you think we as the general public can better understand or better kind of tangle with the multiple dimensions of accountability?
Dr. C.K. Mathew: So you know, in the course of my career, in 1998, for a five year period, up to 2003, I was Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Mr. Ashok Gehlot. In 1998, he came in on a sweeping mandate, he won about 75% of the seats. Out of 200 seats in the assembly, I think what 140-150 he got, but he came in on these three catch words, in his campaign that he kept repeating. And I want to mention that, because it probably stuck deep into the common man’s psyche, his mind, the one word he used was ‘Pardarshi’. ‘Pardarshi’ really means transparency. So he was promising a transparent government, where everything is out in the public sphere, and there will be no hidden rooms or secrets within the government. Second word was ‘Samvedansheel’, which in Hindi means sensitivity. You have a government that cares for you, is sensitive, and people raise questions. So people have problems and grievances, you must be sensitive to that, ‘Samvedansheel’. And the third, he use the word ‘Jawabdehi’ which is, in a word, accountability. You have to give the ‘jawab’, you have to give the reply. ‘Jawabdehi’ is something a little more deeper, because ‘Jawabdehi’ indicates that you are willing to accept the consequences of a wrong decision, it is not simply giving a reply. So if Ashok Gehlot is promising a ‘Jawabdehi’ government, it doesn’t mean that he’s just going to reply to questions. But he’s accepting the responsibility that as the chosen representative for the people for a five year term, it’s not merely to give replies, but to ensure that if there are errors, if there are transgressions everywhere, he would take responsibility for that. So in my sense, that in my way of expressing it to the common person on the street, what does it mean? You know, he’s trying to earn a living, he’s working 24 hours a day sustaining a family, it really means that when his interface with the government comes in somewhere, he should be heard, the person hearing him should be sensitive, the person should be transparent and not hide facts. And ultimately, if there is an error committed, that particular public figure should be responsible and answerable to it. So to the man on the street, these three concepts are very important.
Smita: So in a certain sense, the idea of accountability has somehow moved away from its roots in financial accounting and direct record keeping, which is kind of this, this classical, British parliamentary democracy idea of how it first emerged and started to deviate a bit from responsibility itself. So it’s interesting to think about what you just said, about the responsibility of elected officials or the government to provide answers to the public and be willing to kind of contextualize those answers, except that maybe policy should change in a particular way based on the feedback that they would then be getting. But we’ve then moved away from that literal maintenance of accounts, or in a way that maybe an Indian observer might say, kind of this emphasis on what is there in the file, what is written in the question, what is on paper and backed up? So what you kind of think of this movement or some of the new ways of handling policy that have come in to capture these nuances and these dimensions and how successful do you think they’ve been so far?
Dr. C.K. Mathew: The premier service in the country is the Indian Administrative Service. The IAS. Now it is a fact that we were ruled by Britishers for two and a half centuries. And when the British left India in 1947, they gave us an already developed bureaucratic system, which is the Indian Administrative Service, there is a reporting officer then he reports to a senior and as senior as an further senior about him, there’s a hierarchy built into it, they also devised all the processes of keeping files and keeping accounts. Now, the great criticism against the IAS today is that a system that was used by a colonial power to control and command or slave people that same system is continuing. And there are legitimate arguments which say that that system is no longer relevant. It is not command and control that you require now, but you require motivation and development and pushing things through, listening to people. It is not simply to control and keep our subject people imprisoned, that is no longer you know, there is a quotation from Gandhiji, who used to say that these district collectors sitting in districts are ‘feudal rajas’. They are just bothered with their own comfort and they want to sit in their offices under the fan, but they are not dealing with the people at all. He was very opposed to the IAS. So, when independence came and the Constitution of India was being framed, Sardar Patel, who was the home minister, then surprisingly, he stood up very, very strongly in favor of the Indian Administrative Service. Otherwise, the Indian administrators should have been wound up in 1947. But he said no, in the field, you know, in the field, when you are a common man in the field, the fact is that you go to a District Collector’s office, things are getting done. He was listening to you, and he had the clout and the authority to push things in a manner that your grievances redressed. That doesn’t mean all District Collectors are doing great work, there are thieves amongst all tribes. So the concept of a District Collector, as the key nodal administrative authority in a district, endowed with all powers to resolve problems, to sort out differences, to push development programs, that concept is still valid today. So people who support the IAS say this, ‘maibap’, you know, we call it the ‘maibap’ system, a single authority in the district, to which everybody goes, still works in our country. We still have some feudal residue in our psyche, which believes that a single authority endowed with all powers can get things done. And let me tell you without trying to praise the IAS, even today in a crisis, where the entire country is facing COVID and all kinds of restrictions and lockdowns and everything is being put in place. Sometimes eased, sometimes strengthened. In the District it is the district collector who is managing the situation. Yes, the frontline worker is the doctor and the nurse. But the management of that system, getting people deputed, ensuring that a lockdown takes place properly is enforced, ensuring that doctors and nurses come in time, that the police officers are reporting on duty, that ambulances are working, procurement of oxygen, all these things even today in crisis days is being done by the district collector. So, if you understand the context, that despite being a system devised by colonial powers, which we are continuing, it is still at the field level. But I think when we talk of accountability, we are looking at a situation where a crisis emerges, who will take care of it. A sudden earthquake comes, houses that collapse, people are dying. The only single authority today in our country is the district collector who can go and get things done. He can order people around, he can command resources, he can put people behind bars if required, and ensure that food and water reaches people. There is no other authority, but the civil servants who can do it. But in terms of the evolution of that concept, I think there is a need for policy level senior IAS officers to reexamine their role and see how they can be enablers, and managers and motivators rather than controllers. And I think in a small way it is happening.
Smita: Given your long standing association with the finance department and its procedures and how it would actually look into public expenditures and place checks on improper spending as it were. What is your take on or feeling about recent experiments with something like outcome budgeting, where as you said earlier, if the what the common man would be most interested in what the general public would be interested in is not just what money is being spent where and is it going up or down, but what are the outputs coming out of it and how is it actually translating somewhere to, to an impact on the lives of the general public.
Dr. C.K. Mathew: So, you know, in recent times, there have been this lot of big data available across all sectors of government, which means that in India, it is in fact, I wouldn’t be happy to say this in India, it is not such a closed system as people think it is, much of this information is available online. And if you have the patience to go through and drill deep down into the systems as they are working, you will find all information is available online. So, recently there has been a tendency to look at data which is lying in the public domain and to analyze that data and examine how the states are performing. Now, we have sufficient data on a large number of parameters, which can be used in a creative manner so as to compare the performances of the states. You must have heard of the ‘India Today Annual Index of Good Governance’, the State of the States Report. Soon after my retirement, when I shifted to Bangalore, I joined an organization called the Public Affairs Center. In the Public Affairs Center, I was instrumental in creating an index of good governance. We mined the information available online across the 29 states of India, across 100 parameters, and were able to devise a common index on which these states could be analyzed. In fact, if you look for the Public Affairs Index on your Google, you will find that document every year it is being brought out. So, the big question was how do you evaluate the performance of a state vis-a-vis another state and on what basis. Simple thing would be what are the performance indicators. I had one crore rupees for a certain project in my state. I spent 99 lakhs. Simple. So I have done 99% performance of my target. That’s just simply accounting.
But another state would say look, yes, I did spend 90 crores now or rather, he would say I spent only 50 crores, but that 50 was utilized in the manner in which it had to be utilized. For example, you have this sanitation program across the country, we are moving towards an open defecation free society, there are states which have spent all their accounts and they say we have created so many latrines at washrooms across the country, you go into the field, it is still not there. Even if it’s there, there is no water to be used. Simply spending money to create a latrine without providing the water access to it, is no meaning. So in the Public Affairs index, which we created, we looked at three aspects. One, the figures, the states are reporting certain figures. Two, the process. How are the states performed in the process to achieve that, what are the outcomes that you arrived at? And then we looked at the performance of the institutions within their state. So outcomes, processes and institutions with a three cornered triangle on which each of these indexes were examined. And I’m happy to say that we were able to establish that ranking of the states, in terms of quality of governance, and it’s important to let you know, across many years, I think five, six years, the most best ranking state in the country was Kerala. A small state lying on the edge of the country with a sea coast, but performing absolutely stunningly especially in social indicators, the levels of education their levels of health, comparable to European standards, and established by research and going into the field and finding out what is happening there much in advance of especially the North Indian states. So when you look at accountability, when you look at quality of governance, you have to take into consideration a. the actual expenditure. Yes, we must take that into consideration. But look at outcomes. Look at how public money is being utilized in a manner to bring maximum satisfaction to the people in that area. People are really benefited. You know, I belong to Kerala and that’s not the reason why I’m praising it. But when you go to Kerala and see levels of cleanliness, levels of their health coverage, levels of their education, the awareness of modern technology in life, very much in advance of many of the other states. But Kerala is not such a very rich state either the rich states would be maybe Maharashtra or Delhi would be a rich state. But despite not having achieved a high Prosperity Index in terms of actual outcomes and social indicators, Kerala does much better and linking this back to the accountability issue which you raised. Accountability therefore means not merely as a public servant, not merely spending the money, but ensuring that the objectives of spending that money are actually achieved. Y you can draw a line across India. States south of India are really performing much much better than states, what you call the cowbelt. States about that line are not doing well. And I think Indian politicians and administrators have to really look at this divide. Although they garner more of the public attention UP you know, states like UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, they, they are in the limelight, and much less is written about the real development taking place in the south of the country at a national level. So evolution of accountability is taking place, the way in which you define accountability based on outcomes and actual social justice in the field, I think all those factors will have to be keyed in, if we want to properly understand what accountability is in our country.
Smita: So we’ve been talking up till now about kind of what accountability means and how it plays a role in various facets and elements of governance itself. But one thing I would want to ask you is many conversations about accountability, they place the onus of ensuring it on a watchdog institution or some specific and almost separate process to keep some kind of an external check on general administration. So for you afraid to your mind taking examples of maybe some contemporary incidents, certain cases, what are some of the advantages or the drawbacks of expecting a separate agency or a parallel procedure to ensure that administration happens in accordance with the laws and the norms and is accountable? Right. So I think to understand that, let us first look at watchdog agencies within the government, then we look at what is outside the governmental frame. In every department, basically an expenditure department where expenditure is made in every single one without exception, there is something called an internal audit. That means the accounts Officer of that department, we get all the vouchers of expenditure, he tabulates them and sees out of so much crores of rupees the department had got, so many utilization certificates have been received. So many completion reports have been received. So he tabulates that in a system called internal audit. Then you have something called an external audit. External audit is actually within the department but I’ll try to explain that to you. Let us say there is a corporate body in government. They have their accounts offices, but they specifically depute a chartered accountant who is a private individual, he comes in and does an external audit of that particular department. So he uses his commercial knowledge of management of accounts and is able to give a perhaps a more independent report than a person sitting within the department. So that chartered accountant approved account statement often reveals lapses and problems which is in a slightly better and more organized manner than an internal audit. Then we have the auditor of the Accountant General, the Comptroller and Accountant General of the country, the CAG. He has a vast network of accountants across the country. So they go into major departments, major expenditure departments, and do a very thorough auditing and they find out say, let’s say find out certain lapses, misuse of funds, what is called as a draft para, a paragraph is written, explaining the problem, explaining where these lapses have taken place, and it is given back to the head of the department. The Head of the Department is given an opportunity to rectify it or to reply to it. That is why it is called a draft para. Once that explanation comes in, the AG appreciates it and makes a final report saying that this was the allegation, this was the reply I got but we still feel these are the one or two, three or four lapses that takes place. Then the next stage, once the CAG has given this report, that whole report goes to the Legislative Assembly, the Vidhan Sabha where it is laid on the floor of the House, and all the members MLAs can get access to it. And if it’s a huge scandal at the Legislative Assembly, it virtually explodes, you know with allegations and counter allegations so on. So in the Vidhan Sabha, there is a mechanism for ensuring accountability by what is known as the Public Accounts Committee. The Public Accounts Committee, by very definition is chaired by an opposition member. So if you have a government itself sharing that same committee, then they will only approve whatever has been done. So you have a very senior leader of the opposition, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, and they can really pull up officers I can, I can tell you as finance secretary, I am working in finance, I have attended dozens of such meetings. And if you are on a weak wicket, you are virtually lynched there, because you have a panel of 12 or 15 members of the Legislative Assembly, you are standing in front of them, and they are firing questions at you. Sometimes you can answer them, sometimes you can’t answer them. When the PAC, Public Accounts Committee finally decides that this particular person is responsible for say, let’s say for loss, or for mismanagement, then your career is in threat. So I think within the system itself, there are a lot of corrective agencies that are working, which can bring discipline but having said all that, the external or some agency outside that particular framework of department also exists. Let me give you two or three examples. Some are in government, some are outside government. You have the Anti Corruption Department, every state has an Anti Corruption Department. Then you have the Central Vigilance Commissioner, in Government of India, and also in the States, State vigilance commissioners, you have the Lokayukta, I think you’ve heard of the Lokayukta, which is a possibly a judge from the High Court who comes and examines as an independent body various complaints that he receives. Then you have agencies like Revenue Intelligence Agency, you know tax earning departments like sales, tax and commercial taxes, or GST. There is some problem in that, you have Revenue Intelligence Agencies, which seek out these kinds of lapses and try to find answers to it, then you have, yes, the most important, the role of the independent press. A press with investigative journalism can go into the field and expose things which nobody else has been able to do. But I’m telling you the role of the independent press, independent and courageous press, who will not bow down, who will not cow down to other pressure, that kind of an independent, for as to keep the government on its toes is also very, very important. But in all, I would say that it’s a catch 22 situation here. And it is necessary to understand this in the government structure, taking a financial decision on any crucial issue is fraught with danger. So I can understand the hesitation of even good officers to take decisions where large funds are involved. So when you have accountability pushed to such an extreme, that even good officers are not willing to stand by it and sign on the papers, then you know there are issues related to that, too. So this is a difficult question and difficult to answer. Bottom line is that accountability is most vital in public service. But sometimes it becomes obstacles to taking quick decisions and keeping up with the times. I’m only flagging this issue because it is sometimes often criticized, the government is criticized for delays in decisions. This is one of the main reasons why delays take place.
Smita: In your mind, how can we think about the relationship between accountability and decision making? In that, is it true that more accountability leads to better public decision making?
Dr. C.K. Mathew: So that you know this is again the kind of question which is difficult to give a clear answer. The more and more you put accountability on an officer, are we binding him down? Are we chaining him down? Is he being chained more and more by more and more levels of accountability and more and more aspects of accountability being forced on him. If you have 20 compliances to be made before a decision is taken, then you are virtually binding him down. That is why officers today have a little reluctance to take decisions. They are fearing, will some Revenue Intelligence Agency come into my office now? Will the anti corruption department be asking me questions? Will the Enforcement Directorate be questioning me for a legitimate discussion? So, there is a subtle balance between accountability in broad terms and freedom to take a decision in the best interests of the nation of the common man, how do you arrive at that balance? You need quick decisions. For example, in COVID, you cannot go through a committee system. If you want to you know help create oxygen facility, then you float a tender and that tender takes three months to come through and then levels of committee have to approve it. Crisis will be over and gone and people will be lying dead there. So, in such situations in fact, I would strongly approve that in a crisis, the government gives lots of freedom. If a flood is coming, evacuate. If an earthquake is taking place, the district collector is empowered to take whatever decision is required to be taken without too much of procedure and process and all that he is completely empowered to take whatever decision that he has to take. So we have to therefore balance between emergency situations where complete freedom is given even today complete freedom is given to take distance and the normal functioning of the department where there have to be guidelines and rules and regulations to correct the manner in which you are taking a decision. So accountability, the overall goal, but never should it hamper in a manner that you hamper your officers’ decision. That balance is very difficult to find. And you have to work towards more and more transparent systems where this balance is maintained, is allowed to percolate down to the people that people understand it. Officers understand what are the limitations on them, and what they can do. It’s actually a continuing process of self education, and putting things out into the public domain that people understand it. It’s a continuous process, there is no end to it. And thereby you better and better achieve your good governance goals. You better and better achieve your outcomes. You see that money is utilized well, you protect the officer who’s taking good officers and don’t just sit down on him so that he’s crushed completely. Somebody has taken a decision best interest and then you question him and say, Why didn’t you do this section? And why did you not follow the Para number three or four of certain role direction book, there is this balance which you have to maintain and it’s very difficult in a country like India, except that, but we have to move in that direction.
Smita: That was my conversation with Dr. C.K. Mathew, and you’ve been listening to the DAKSH podcast. This episode was hosted by me, Smita Matt. If you liked the show,don’t forget to follow or subscribe to us wherever you listen to your podcasts so that you don’t miss an episode. We would love to hear from you. So do share your feedback either by dropping us a review or rating the podcast wherever podcast apps allow you to talk about it on social media. We are using the hashtag dakshpodcast. It really helps get the word out there. Most of all, if you found some useful information that might help a friend or family member, do share the episode with them. A special thank you to our production team at “Made in India”, our production head Joshua Thomas, mixing and mastering Kartik Kulkarni and project supervisor Sean Phantom. If you want to find more about this topic, please have a look at the reading list in the episode description and to get in touch, visit our website dakshindia.org. That’s D-A-K-S-H india.org. Thank you for listening.