The recent terror attacks in Mumbai are another stark reminder of the failure of the state to meet even basic expectations of citizens. Over the years, citizens have come to expect better from governments. In the 1960s and 70s, the difference between the efficiencies of government and the private sector was not as pronounced. This increased expectation of better government among citizens is accentuated by the fact that the private sector (with the use of technology and constant effort to improve business processes) has given customers a better user experience and results.

It is not that governments have been blind to inefficiencies in the delivery of services and the gap between citizen expectations and the government's ability to deliver. Way back in the late 60s the government set up the first Administrative Reforms Commission in order to get deeper insights into improving the performance of various sectors of the economy. While at least some of the recommendations of the commission may be contestable, most observers agree that only a small fraction of even the 'acceptable' recommendations of the commission were actually implemented by successive governments.

Over the years, there have been a number of committees and efforts to think through the reforms required in the public sector. More recently, the setting up of the second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) a couple of years ago is seen as one more effort to make government more responsive and effective. It is an open question as to why the ARC is continuing with its work even now, especially on the core subject of civil service reforms, up to the last day of this government? The expectation is that a future government could still find the recommendations of this ARC useful. But frankly, why would a future government be obliged to go with this set of recommendations, rather than one developed by itself, and for its own time?

Similarly, in 2006, a draft public services bill was placed in the public domain by the government, inviting comments, but so far this bill has not been introduced in Parliament. I sometimes feel what India needs is an "implementation commission" instead of all these commissions that come out with recommendations that go umimplemented!

Elsewhere in the world

In the United States, there have been attempts by various administrations to improve government performance, such as the Hoover Commission (1947-1949 and 1953-1955), the Grace Commission (1982-1984) and the more recent National Partnership for Reinventing Government (1993-1998). The National Partnership for Reinventing Government began as the National Performance Review (NPR) in 1993 in Bill Clinton's first term. NPR was an interagency task force to reform and streamline the federal government functioning. Speaking at the start of the NPR, President Clinton had said, "Our goal is to make the entire federal government less expensive and more efficient, and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment."

While Vice President Al Gore, who led the NPR effort, was tasked to provide a set of recommendations in six months, he took the opportunity to lead a large scale effort to reform government based on the recommendations. Thus the effort was not reduced to an intellectual exercise, where reports gathered dust - and then the next such commission is set up a couple of decades later. To be sure, there are a number of critics of this reform effort of the federal government in the United States. But the bias towards action, rather than merely intellectualising the problem, clearly holds useful lessons for our leadership in India.

Also read these other articles in this series of 'Reclaiming Government'.

 •  Forgotten middle path
 •  Missing: A 'healthy' debate
 •  Justice without the state?
 •  For the people, by the govt?

The tragic attack of 9/11 on the World Trade Centre in New York came as a major shock to Americans. It suddenly made them realise the extent of their vulnerability to terror attacks. As a response to the attack and the heightened anxiety among citizens, President Bush made an announcement within days of the attack that his government would formulate a plan for safeguarding the homeland from future terrorist attacks. From this crisis was born the idea of creating the Department of Homeland Security. Within less than a month, he had created the Office of Homeland Security and appointed a person to head it.

At the time there was criticism that it was too little. But that initiative resulted in the largest reorganisation in the US federal government in recent history which ultimately created the Department of Homeland Security with a cabinet level rank person heading it. The consequence of such action is for all to see - there has not been a single terror attack since then in the United States.

In 1984, the government of New Zealand began an important process of government reform. The country was trying to get out of an economic crisis, and there was a change of government which was willing to take on the challenge and leverage it for long term transformation of the governance systems in the country. The reform process itself lasted several years and was undertaken in a phased manner. Through this process, the government had to grapple with a number of questions and choices.

For example, an oft cited aspect of the reform process in New Zealand is the appointment of 'chief executives' on a contract basis to head executive responsibilities in the government. Their contracts would be renewed or terminated at the end of the term depending on their performance. There was much deliberation on this important question in the country. Another aspect that needed to be worked out as part of this process was to develop reliable and fair ways of measuring and reporting the performance of government ministries. But subsequent review commissions to understand the implications of the reform process gave the go-ahead to the government to continue the reform process.

The reforms that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher initiated in Britain were mostly focussed on privatisation. The Thatcher legacy remains a matter of debate in many parts of the world. Her legacy actually goes beyond the question of privatisation and asks more fundamental questions such as what the role of government should be. It raises questions about the role of the state and the private sector, and what our vision for society is.

In a wide ranging interview for the series The Commanding Heights, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown had said, "What happened was that in the 1940s, the Labour government nationalised [industries]. In the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher moved these industries back into the private sector. We still did not have and we are still working on the proper relationship in a global economy between state and market, between public and private. We are still working on, because these are questions that remained unresolved at the end of the Thatcher years: How [do] you manage public services to the best effect, to achieve the values that you set out [to achieve]?"

While these large questions of vision for society and the balance between the roles of the state and market need to be debated, there is a lot that can be done even within the existing framework of governance in any country. Delivering better service, to more people, at a lower cost is a question of improving efficiency.

Many commissions, little change

It is well known that crises often present good opportunities for reform that might not be palatable in normal times. Our own balance of payments problem resulted in the financial sector reforms in the early 1990s. At that time, we did not require a set of commissions and reports to decide on what needs to be done. We just had to be decisive and take the steps necessary to ensure that the crisis was managed.

It would not be entirely incorrect to say that the government sets up commissions when it does not want to do anything.

 •  How things change in govt.
 •  Will this time be different?

Commissions are often used when a government wants to push an issue from the public arena to the bureaucratic arena. For example, when there is a Gurjar agitation, the government immediately reacts by saying that it will set up a commission to examine the matter. This immediately, at least in the short term, calms down matters and allows the government to think through its response (or sometimes, the lack of it.) Given the history of the innumerable commissions we have had in India, there is little we have seen in terms of actual change in how government conducts its business, it would not be entirely incorrect to say that the government sets up commissions when it does not want to do anything.

As India's demography changes ever so rapidly, and a whole new generation of youngsters become adults in a globally interconnected and networked world, there will be new pressures calling for change. Sooner, rather than later, if the government does not adapt to the changes in citizen expectations, we might just begin to see even greater efforts by private enterprise to fill the gaps and provide the services that citizens demand for and are willing to pay. The government will be left with running for cover.

The loss of faith in government can be extremely detrimental to the very foundation of our democracy. Improved performance by government is a national imperative. But the interests that resist change are difficult to break. The process of reform is as much about being intelligent about managing the politics and interests, as it is about great ideas.

I have discussed ways in which the governments have tried to meet the increased expectations of citizens in several countries around the world. This is not an endorsement of any particular approach, but more to substantiate the point that governments have tried different approaches. In my next article, I will try to explain how scholars are beginning to visualise the structure and functions of governments in the 21st century.