During the Foundational Course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, as a part of classroom academics, trainees are exposed to various topics and subjects covering a broad spectrum. The curriculum includes subjects like political science, law, management and behavioural science, public administration, economics, history, and culture.

Subsequently, during the specialised phases of the training programme for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, the curriculum includes law and legal instruments, administrative rules, procedures and programme guidelines, modern management rules and economic analysis. There was absolutely no regular course on creativity, invention, innovation and intellectual property. Furthermore, there is no course on the delivery of public services and on ensuring that governance becomes customer-centric. In fact, there is no training on public communication either, an aspect that has become important now due to the advent and extensive use of electronic and social media.

While we pride ourselves on our scientific temper and research infrastructure, which has developed over the past 70 years or so, little attention is paid to the practical application of the results emanating from such research and the protection of the same through the various elements of intellectual property. It is, therefore, imperative to make changes in the academy curricula to inject a culture of creativity in the service.

The syllabus should include courses, projects and case studies on invention and innovation. Furthermore, not only should the government have specialised departments dealing with science, technology and innovation but also ensure that innovation permeates through all its programmes and policies, with the performance of officers judged on their success in this regard.

In an effort to move in that direction, Mission Karmayogi, which was launched in September 2020, endeavours to prepare Indian civil servants for the future by making them more creative, constructive, imaginative, innovative, proactive, professional, progressive, energetic, enabling, transparent and technology-enabled. The mission draws its inspiration from the motto of the civil services, Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam (Excellence in action is Yoga). The mission also calls for a citizen-centric approach, requiring government officials to have respectful interactions, problem-solving competencies and to undergo an attitudinal change.

This can be read along with the National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Policy, 2016, which seeks to “stimulate a dynamic, vibrant and balanced intellectual property rights system in India to foster creativity and innovation, and thereby promote entrepreneurship and enhance socio-economic and cultural development”. The policy stresses the need to create awareness about the importance of IPRs as a marketable financial asset and economic tool and recognises that the “21st century belongs to the knowledge era and is driven by the knowledge economy – an economy that creates, disseminates and uses knowledge to enhance its growth and development”.

It is refreshing to note that civil service reforms are flagging these issues as important elements and national policies are emphasising their importance. Intangible assets, mainly emanating from creativity and innovativeness, now comprise 90 per cent of the market value of the Standard and Poor 500. While India has always laid stress on research and sharing its findings widely, rarely did we emphasise the commercialisation of that research, partly due to historical reasons.

Therefore, when we talk about the role of civil servants in the development process and emphasise the importance of innovation, it does not stop with the implementation of programmes in the field but also extends to the formulation of policies at the highest levels of government.

The bureaucracy at the central level, which assists in the framing of national policies, needs to be sensitised to such requirements. While our scientific institutions and laboratories have invested considerable sums of money in themselves, very rarely are they held accountable for low returns on investment in terms of generating valuable assets, which can either be deployed for public use or commercialised.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, in its Twelfth Report on Citizen Centric Administration, in February 2009, had said that citizen centricity should be at the heart of governance. Stressing on governance, the report said that administration had become more complex and the expectation of the citizens had gone up.

It was also necessary to speed up processes and increase transparency in administration. According to feedback received by the commission, it was found that officials were not adhering to schedules; there was no proper format for meeting with the people; letters were left unanswered; there was rampant corruption; senior citizens were not respected and even reporting to higher authorities did not solve the problems.

The commission had formulated a set of recommendations making it mandatory for government organisations to develop suitable mechanisms for receiving suggestions from citizens. They emphasised the setting up of suggestion boxes and to hold periodic consultations with citizens’ groups. It was also recommended that deadlines be prescribed for response and resolution and information technology tools used to make the system more accessible for citizens.

The Hota Committee on Civil Service Reforms also stressed on making the civil service responsive and citizen-friendly. Referring to the public office and the citizen, the report said that rarely does a telephone call by an ordinary citizen to a government office help in solving a problem. The committee recommended the setting up of toll-free phones in every government office, with the numbers given wide publicity. It was also added that the officer who received the phone call should be responsible for resolving the issue. The report noted that civil servants were surprised at the behaviour of their colleagues when they were required to deal with them after retirement and so “it would be useful for each civil servant to be made familiar with the problems being faced by the common man in relation to government departments”.

As per the report, many government departments had established information and facilitation centres for interface with the citizens, but in most cases, they were either non-functional or lacked a customer-friendly approach. The report also stated that it should be made mandatory for departments to develop their own websites and that all documents relating to the services offered by it be made available on the website, along with the details of the officials responsible. The website should be regularly updated and a window created for accepting public grievances.

While committees and reforms commissions have repeatedly stressed on civil servants becoming customer-centric and people-friendly, the situation on the ground appears to be very different. Very rarely do you meet a person who tells you about his pleasant experience after visiting a government office. Most officials appear to be overburdened, with their tables overflowing with files and documents. Despite the increased use of computerisation and many processes becoming paperless, it is still extremely cumbersome for a common man to have his issues resolved. This is despite many state governments and central administrations having dispensed with physical visit to offices and submission of paper forms, replacing them with online mechanisms. For instance, at times, when the customer is required to upload a picture on the form, he has to go through a tortuous process of obtaining the picture in the right format and adjusting it to the appropriate size. While this may not be too difficult for a millennial or an urban customer, it can become a nightmare for a rural user or a senior citizen.

There have undoubtedly been successes with some of these online processes, some going back several decades. Train reservations, for instance, which used to be a very difficult process, have become a dream with the process going online in a user-friendly and transparent manner. Earlier, planning a journey required a visit to the railway station and being subjected to obtuse, non-transparent processes. “The major revolution of the period came from the world of computing. In particular, the Indian Railways online passenger reservation system was launched in 1985 and gradually introduced at Delhi, Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.”

To some extent, such improvements also apply to paying property taxes and fulfilling mutation formalities. But is that sufficient? According to a Deloitte report on customer service in the US government, “satisfaction” is not the same as “performance”. The report further states: “In 2007 only 57 percent of tax returns were filed electronically. Now it’s over 90 percent. No more hunting down forms in government offices or trips to the Post Office.”

These are seemingly small changes but matter a lot to the citizen.

Excerpted with permission from “Innovation and the Civil Service” by Pushpendra Rai from Transforming the Steel Frame: Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform, edited by Vinod Rai, Rupa Books.