A Handbook for Passing on the Blame
By T.R. Raghunandan, 10 Feb 2017

The essence of what the government does boils down to two things, in a financial sense, it collects taxes and delivers a basket of services. In today’s day and age, these tasks are no longer usurped by despots, but are performed by elected representatives, hired bureaucrats or chosen regulators who are put in their positions and are entrusted with powers to do what people expect of them. Everything else – the actual design of a taxation system, or the positioning of an executive arm of the government to perform the day to day tasks of governance – are just the granules of detail that elaborate upon these two simple precepts.

The idea of accountability remains the same, whether in the public or private realms. A task is entrusted to individuals or teams and if that task is not performed according to pre-determined parameters, then some adverse consequences are to be faced as punishment for the failure. It is the fact that adverse consequences will be faced, that gives teeth to a system of accountability. In such circumstances, both governments and the private sector design elaborate mechanisms for both entrustment of tasks with precision, as also to hold those entrusted to account, for failures to reach the objectives fixed.

Yet, it is normal human nature to attempt to gain powers. These might be absolute or relative in nature; the power to order someone else around might come with the obligation to be subordinate to someone else. It is also normal human nature to attempt to avoid being accountable for failure to achieve entrusted objectives. Again, these tendencies remain the same, whether in the public or the private sector.

When it comes to the public sector, it is necessary for citizens to understand what the various ways are, by which the components of government attempt to avoid accountability for their failures. This is not to say that everybody in the government is attempting to avoid responsibility all the time, but to emphasise that in case they do, they need to be caught and punished appropriately. This is also not to say that everybody who fails  in the government ought to be dragged to face a firing squad, but that there must be some form of graded system of punishments in place, ranging from censure to the ultimate punishment of removal from the assigned job, for accountability to have any meaning.

However, rarely do we see anybody in the government actually facing the consequences of their wrong actions. Much as we prefer to revile them, politicians are the ones who face the strongest accountability test in government. They have to go through the ordeal of standing for elections every five years. In the case of the bureaucracy in India, largely recruited for a permanent stay in the government till retirement and eligible for a pension afterward, accountability systems are weak.

Still, one might ask the question; who cares if accountability systems are weak? Considering that only 78 lakh people in the country pay direct taxes to the government, as reckoned by the Union Finance Minister in his budget speech, the angst of watching ones hard earned money being taken away by the government and misspent is restricted to a minuscule sliver of Indian citizenry. Yet, as our society is put under greater surveillance and technology enables more snooping into financial transactions, the tax base for direct taxes is likely to increase exponentially in the next few years. A lot more people will be paying direct taxes in future, and therefore, will need to be worried about how effectively the government is spending these accumulated funds.

We will need to know the actual ways and means by which government systems dilute their accountability to us. These methods will vary, depending upon which arm and category of government that we focus upon. The next few blogs will discuss case studies of how departments create smokescreens behind which they dilute, or wholly dismantle accountability measures that make them responsible to citizens.