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How many officials does it take to procure a government document?

Sep 02, 2013

Literature on red tape often tries to distinguish ‘good’ rules that uphold accountability and transparency, and guard one against arbitrary decisions and decision-makers from bad rules or red tape, writes Mehjabeen Jagmag.

The first step when conducting a Public Expenditure Tracking Survey (PETS) at Accountability Initiative is to procure a permission letter from the relevant department of that State to be able to carry out our research. A permission letter is a signed, authorised, official-nod that is passed on to district and block administrators, and later, photocopied and distributed to all our volunteers. The volunteers carry this letter with them to the government schools they visit. It authenticates our intent and simplifies the data collection process. The permission letter is often the very first obstacle in the data collection process.

Our experience in six states has taught us that the time taken to procure this letter varies significantly. In some states, it takes a little less than a week, and in some over a month. In one particular instance, a request for the permission letter had to be faxed, emailed and delivered personally to the department, before an acknowledgement of the correspondence was received. In such cases, sending multiple copies helped, as faxes can be misplaced, emails deleted and deliveries unaccounted for.

Once the draft goes through, there is no way to predict how long it will take to receive the final document. Corrections can be made and new drafts can be requested for. Once the final draft is okayed by the first official, another official is responsible for typing the letter and printing it out on an official document. Once this document is printed, the official responsible for the printing passes it back to the first official to sign the letter. In the case of one permission letter, no less than three officials were expected to sign a letter thus tripling the time taken to process the document.

After the letter is signed, it is ready to be faxed/emailed/delivered to the subsequent (district/block) level. The official responsible for passing this letter down may be the same person with whom the signed copy rests, or it may be someone else entirely. Here too, there is no way to predict who the concerned authorities are and how long each subsequent step will take. With every new round of surveys, we lather-rinse-repeat (the first survey was conducted in the year 2011 and we are presently in the next round this year). We have come to approach this routine with some amount of caution as officials change and the process and their willingness to share documents, be it permission letters or data changes alongside. Oftentimes, old files serve as institutional memory and come to our rescue; other times, we have to start the application process from scratch.

Gupta (2012) explains the importance of recording all transactions down to a paper and storing them away in files in an administrative system wrought with frequent transfers. Written records testify how earlier decisions were made, aiding new officers to make an informed decision without prior knowledge of the issue. However, disappearing files often mean that the issue also disappears with it.  As Gupta (ibid) records an officer during fieldwork saying, “If it is not in the file, it does not exist.”

Jha (1987), the eighth Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, wrote, “The most important reform to tone up the efficiency of administration would be to take steps to ensure that the files do not have to move horizontally, between one department and another or vertically, within each department from the bottom to the top, before they reach the point where decision is taken.” [1].

Having recently spent a week chasing one such permission letter I realised that files continue to move horizontally and vertically, in public offices. I shared my concern with the assistant in charge of getting the necessary signatures. I told him that we were drawing close to the commencement of our survey and we would have to stall the entire process if the letter did not come through. He told me that if I would just have to let things take their course, irrespective of the looming survey deadline.

Bozeman & Scott (1996) qualify red tape as rules that have gone wrong. Their definition of red tape includes both the cause and effect of red tape: “Organizational rules, regulations, and procedures that serve no appreciable social or organizational function but that nonetheless remain in force and result in inefficiency, unnecessary delays, frustration, and vexation.”

Literature on red tape often tries to distinguish ‘good’ rules that uphold accountability and transparency, and guard one against arbitrary decisions and decision-makers from bad rules or red tape. The criticism being that red tape turns rules into an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (Bozeman & Scott, 1996, A, Gupta 2012)[2]’[3].

However, rules work only if everyone involved in the process is aware about them. During frequent visits to the government office, I learned that there would always be a new step, a new signature, and a new procedure that stood in between us and the final letter. When I asked the assistant to explain the whole process to me, so I could anticipate what would come next, he said that the process was too complicated to explain or understand. The information asymmetry between the public official and I, kept him in control and me in a constant state of suspense.

At the end of month, when we had received no letter from the department, we changed our strategy, reapplied for permission through another department and received our letter within four working days. This time around, the process worked in our favour, documents were typed, signed, stamped and sent with very little effort required on our part. Once again, if there had been a way to predict that this process would have worked far more efficiently than the last, we would have assumed this route much earlier.

In the case of the letter, the delay appeared to have been caused due to a complex protocol that had to be followed, without a specific time limit within which it ought to have been completed. In the absence of provisions like those placed under the RTI Act where an applicant is entitled to information within 30 days from the receipt of the application, there is a greater probability for ‘good’ rules to regress to red tape. In the words of Jha (1987), “Mr Red Tape is a creature of somewhat strange habits. He moves in grooves, he sits on files, he sleeps over reminders and occasionally, he has been known to eat his own words.”

Maybe the next round of surveys will bring us more luck.

SOURCE: Accountability Initiative

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