Scapegoats are necessary in the art of politics. And inevitably, in governance, the role falls on the civil servants.

Last month, when Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport & Highways as well as Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, virtually inaugurated the new National Highways Authority of India building, he lashed out at bureaucrats, blaming them for the delay in the project.

Earlier too, Gadkari had talked about the “microscopic minority” that stalled government works.

The minister’s statements raise interesting questions on accountability. Is the bureaucrat alone responsible for delays? Isn’t there a collective responsibility?

During the NHAI building launch, Gadkari outlined the sequence. He said the decision to construct the building was taken in 2008, the tender was awarded in 2011 and the project worth ₹200-250 crore completed after nine years. “In the meanwhile, two governments and eight chairmen have changed. This project was delayed only due to the indecision of officials,” said the minister.

“I feel ashamed. I had personally conducted three-four meetings for it. I have been insisting on reforms. Now, as the tradition is, records will be prepared to blame the contractors alone for approaching the NCLT,” he added.

The Minister did have a point. But, one needs to dig deeper to ferret out the reasons for the delay. As a former civil servant says, “It is a systematic style to blame a bureaucrat. But a decision is not taken by an officer alone.”

A serving bureaucrat defends, “Why blame the officer? If the officer sticks his neck out and the powers that be do not like it, the officer will either be shunted out or could find one of the investigating agencies knocking at his/her door, even post retirement. So where is the assurance that taking a decision will not land him/her in trouble?”

Anil Swarup, Former Secretary to Government of India, wrote in one of his columns, “Nitin Gadkari is right. However, like any other organisation, civil service has its share of the good, the bad and the ugly… the key is to give the right signal to the bureaucracy so that fence-sitters can decide. This choice rests with the political master. If allegiance, servility and pliability are the prime considerations instead of honesty and efficiency, then governance will suffer.”

“The key is to get the right person for the right job. There is a need to have a re-look at the opaque ‘360 degree’ mechanism for empanelment. The concept, borrowed from the private sector, is an excellent one but the way it is operated leaves a lot to be desired,” says Swarup. He feels a personal interaction with the officer is necessary and there should be transparency on why an officer was selected or why not.

According to Prabir Jha, a former civil servant and HR consultant, “Finally the minister and the Cabinet is where the buck stops for all acts of commission and omission in our political system of collective responsibility. But, I think here the Chairman/Chairmen of the NHAI must hold the responsibility. This is just not acceptable and speaks to these roles becoming pre-retirement assignments or a stop before becoming a full-time Secretary. The apathy is obvious.”

To stem this apathy, it’s time that an outcome-driven performance management system is put in place as well as a transparent system of selection of officers. Pivotal posts cannot be decided on personal preference.