Is the sacred code of secrecy eroding?

Richa Mishra | Updated on May 20, 2020

For long, bureaucrats have adhered to a code of secrecy, with their advice to ministers being confidential   -  mantosh

The clamour is for more transparency and sharing of views, but how does it fit in with the Civil Services Code?

Last month, three officers of Indian Revenue Service were charge-sheeted and divested of duty for “unauthorisedly publishing tax hike report and misguiding younger officers”. The report in question suggested an imposition of Covid cess, wealth tax and inheritance tax as well as a hike in tax rates. It caused a public furore.

According to those in the know, it was just a paper for internal discussions that was also being submitted to the government for consideration. But those in authority thought otherwise.

Did the superiors over-react? According to a serving officer, if bureaucrats talk about service matters, it is in order, but discussing policy or governance issues unless asked is a strict no-no.

For long, bureaucrats have adhered to a code of secrecy, with their advice to ministers being totally confidential. But at a time when ideas of transparency and crowdsourcing are gaining ground, should not the voice of bureaucrats and their suggestions be heard more openly? Is it time to have a relook at the Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules?

The rule book

The current controversy originated when the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) sought feedback from its field formations across India on the ideas for revival across various sectors of the economy. The outcome was a paper titled “FORCE” which stands for Fiscal Options & Response to Covid-19 epidemic”.

The allegation was that, instead of sending the report to government through official channels, the officers went public with it, which created panic and uncertainty. The question is: were the officers within their rights as per the rule book?

Former Civil Servant TR Raghunandan, Advisor, Accountability Initiative, points out that, “Rule 7 of the Conduct Rules for Central Services Officers prohibits them from criticising the government. However, statements made or views expressed by a member of the Service in his/her official capacity are exempt from this prohibition. Another exemption of sorts is under Rule 13 (2), which permits member of the Service to undertake occasional work of a literary, artistic or scientific character without the previous sanction of the government.”

Former IAS officer Vivek Rae says, “In the present case, only suggestions have been given and there is no criticism of government policy. Disciplinary action against the concerned IRS officers is therefore not called for.”

Time for flexibility?

Dilip Cherian, a communications & political advisor, feels that with changing times, there is need for more relaxation of rules. “You must remember that today, with social media, what is suppressed in other platforms is expressed there. Also, these officers are on field and will know the ground reality,” he argues.

He points out that young officers today are millennials who are vocal about their views and it is a good sign. “It is time to adopt some flexibility in the rules that govern their expression in public”, he adds.

But Raghunandan says, “In this case, the officers have written what is evidently a policy paper. While arguably it would be covered under Rule 13, which enables writings of a literary character that is an entirely contestable position. A lenient government may permit it but, on the other hand, another might not.” Besides, taxation is a particularly tricky matter, and therefore, normally, tax proposals are discussed under a cloak of secrecy, he says, adding, “This is because discussions on tax matters in public can cause repercussions and unnecessary speculation amongst industry interests, which may stand to gain and lose on taxation. Therefore, I can well understand that any government would take a strict stand, notwithstanding whether it is critical of the government or otherwise.”

Need for consistency

However, there are contradictions, points out Raghunandan. “This government, which has raised the optics of governance to a fine art, has not only encouraged but also virtually compelled officers to tweet, post on social media and in every way act as propagandists of the government.”

He adds that there have also been instances where officers who have furthered hate by their obnoxious posts on social media have not been even castigated by the government, much less punished.

In fact, several young officers in the services believe that the Conduct Rules are old and need a thorough review with an aim to create more professional, open and transparent bureaucracy with a healthy culture of discussion and debate. Besides, should the government not have a consistent and impartially-applied stand on how far officers can go with their public utterances?

Richa Mishra


Published on May 20, 2020

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