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Moral Puzzles and Ethical Dilemmas in Administration – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Moral Puzzles and Ethical Dilemmas in Bureaucracy - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Sameer Unhale

India commemorates Good Governance Day on December 25th on the occasion of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birth anniversary.

In the postmodern and post-truth eras, issues relating to the ethical scenario of statecraft, including administration, such as corruption, criminal politician nexus, politician contractor nexus, criminalisation of bureaucracy, the inability of the civil service to refuse to obey illegal orders from political executives or their willing implementation by senior officers as well as front-line government officers and staff, have occupied significant moral and media space.

As is the current media debate over the political use of investigative and regulatory agencies against people allegedly associated with opposition parties.Transfers and postings of officers, whether or not they follow easily malleable rules, become an important tool for reining in permanent executives.The bureaucracy’s silence, or feeble sporadic muttering, from both those serving and those retired, is equally perplexing. Such issues, beyond names, faces, and events, can help identify and predict patterns.

In general, a “two by two matrix, of legality and morality, could provide a simple framework for placing administrative action in moral perspective. One would accept that not all legal acts are always moral. Nor are all moral acts always legal. So a simple strategy would emerge, that orders, which are both legal and moral, are definitely to be executed without hesitation by bureaucracy.

And orders, both illegal and immoral, issued by political or senior officers are not to be carried out and, if possible, should be resisted. But how to resist, if at all, is not yet clear. The other two categories, whether imperative or not, such as legal but immoral actions and moral but illegal actions, may fall into the zone of dilemmas.

Ideally, such orders are required to be raised up the chain of command within the organisation or to the highest level, bureaucratic or political, which may have the authority to make such relaxations. Without the organisation, the options are to reach other authorities like the judiciary or ombudsman, or, in some cases, reach out to the media or various social organisations, which, in all practicality, is a moral puzzle.

Morality in Bureaucracy

When we talk of morality, values, norms, and the legal framework in any society, more so in the societies from the global south, the traditions and norms in those societies get superimposed by the values and morality of their colonial masters, as well as by the colonial legal framework. 

Though one could always argue that the philosophy emphasised in the Indian Constitution would provide officers with a sufficient moral compass to overcome any dilemmas, administration is legal rational in its moral avatar, and with equality before the law and equal protection under the law, no dilemma should arise. But practical functioning is never so linear. Nor can any law or rules ever anticipate every possibility and make provision for it. And thus, there will remain some areas of discretion and, therefore, moral and ethical dilemmas.

It is also critical not to develop a bias against all politicians as if they are all corrupt or criminal. The media has showed transfers as punishment of officers due to their moral behaviour. Society and even politicians, even if their work is not done, by and large, respect moral and efficient officers. Despite the fact that they would never hesitate to attack them, legally or otherwise, if their work was not completed!!

The absolute control of the political executive over the postings and transfers of bureaucracy, regardless of court rulings and the establishment of establishment boards, clerical jugaad of reducing them to meaningless ritualism is the simplest thing to do. The notion of a prized posting, as it exists in government functioning, though inevitable for any big hierarchical organisation, is unique. It can be broadly defined as positions with leadership roles in organisations, as well as independent charges as heads of offices with independent decision-making powers in any organization. Tables dealing with establishment issues such as transfers, postings, and disciplinary matters within any government organisation are also in high demand.

The indicators of achievement or excellence in bureaucracy are limited, particularly due to strict seniority rules, and cannot be fully formalised in any ACR or PAR system. For a bureaucrat, there can be no out-of-turn promotion nor any additional salary rise, as in the corporate sector. Thus, even in the self-perceptions of officers and colleagues, the opportunity to work in so-called executive postings becomes an easy marker of excellence and a sense of achievement. A deputy secretary and pen pusher in HQ cannot be compared with a district collector or commissioner in the Maslow hierarchy of needs for social recognition, self-esteem, and self-actualisation.

The economic implications of many administrative actions, especially in crucial sectors related to land, awarding tenders, etc., are significant, and instances of the industrial/commercial sector trying to influence these administrative actions, by way of official or formal policies of government at higher echelons as well as by way of informal instructions on changing the tender conditions, awarding tenders, or prioritising the payment of bills, are not rare. 

Similarly, informal instructions exist in matters of tax administration, interpretation of taxation classification and rates, levy of taxes, taking coercive measures by raid or recovery of dues. Outright bullying or physical assault is not unheard of if the higher authority is known for criminal proclivity.

Unauthorised instructions on non-action, particularly in the regulatory and criminal spheres, are frequently associated with significant financial or political consideration. What practical options the bureaucracy has to oppose such decisions is anyone’s guess. In matters pertaining to developmental and welfare administration, a common flow of instructions from political leadership, or HQ-level senior bureaucracy, to field levels or subordinate officers about including some beneficiaries, whether by rule or otherwise, does exist.

At the ministry or secretariat level, favouring a sector or industry in terms of tax rates, budgetary allocations, and welfare programmes for individual beneficiaries is common. Officers with criminal tendencies have been known to engage in massive corruption, whether they are politicians or not, or, in some cases, are the key henchmen of such politicians, with far more disastrous consequences.

The criminalization of politics has been dealt with by numerous court rulings and various famous and not-so-famous commissions and committees. And it appears that the public seems to have given up any hope of taking it seriously, opposing it, or probably taking it as inevitable fatalism.

As numerous news reports on the commercialization of electoral processes have pointed out, it is a convenient ploy to use electioneering as a justification for massive corruption.Adding a new dimension to our understanding of the moral landscape of bureaucratic functioning and moral puzzles has been news reporting on the question of political expediency of parties in power by selectively using investigating agencies against political opponents.

This is a difficult nut to crack because asking to follow up on a complaint is both illegal and immoral! Some may not object as long as rules are followed both in letter and spirit, giving priority to investigation, even on a political target.The masses may rejoice that the elites and their infighting are providing some social service, with the understanding that the nexus is being severed.

British Legacy of Administration

Prior to the “Welfare Republic” form of governance,  under the “Constitution of India,”  Indian governance was colonial and imperial in British India and feudal in nature in the remaining princely states. The first hundred years of British rule, under the British East India Company, a public limited company involved in commercial activities, were a classic case of traders using government positions for profiteering, as was reinterring, out of official positions, a royal mandate, or a feudal arrangement.

Thus, corruption, in its present definition, was traditionally the right of the feudal lord, a way of compensation for his services in lieu of his tribute to the king. Even at the time of independence, princely states ruled one-third of India.Despite its rule of law, colonial British India was not seen as seriously insisting on such behavior, as no major anti-corruption laws were seen to be enacted under British rule.

Regarding the superior bureaucracy arm of governance, under the “Constitution of India,” Indian governance was colonial and imperial in British India and feudal in nature in the remaining princely states. The first hundred years of British rule, under the British East India Company, a public limited company involved in commercial activities, were a classic case of traders using government positions for profiteering, as was reinterring, out of official positions, a royal mandate, or a feudal arrangement.

Thus, corruption, in its present definition, was traditionally the right of the feudal lord, a way of compensation for his services in lieu of his tribute to the king. One third of India , even by the time of the Independence , was ruled by princely states.

The colonial British India, despite its rule of law, was not to be seen seriously insisting on such behavior, as no major anti-corruption laws were seen to be enacted under British Rule. Regarding the superior bureaucracy, the pay of ICS officers was always extremely high, as compared to the lowest salary in government or the median per capita income of natives in those times.

Post Independence Scenario

Following independence, the criminalization of politics, the primacy of primordial loyalties and caste conscious, the personality cult on loyalties to political leaders, had given rise to tolerance for breaking the rules, and in some cases, a cartel of politicians/business and bureaucrats working with utmost connivance.This tolerance extended to the field, where a team of local politicians, contractors, and lower-level officers collaborated. Thus, a percentage for officers and partnership for politicians in civil engineering development contracts emerged in developmental works.

This acceptance or tolerance led to a system for offers or demands of a substantial amount of money by political and senior administrative leadership for transfers and postings, where opportunities for such dealing are greater. In the criminal and regulatory administration and departments, the hafta, or protection money, is even funded and lobbied by such cartels. Conflict with politicians is less common in some allied or central services than in state government or local bodies, according to experience.

Aside from the economics of monetizing rule breaking and violations, political leaders prefer officers who are compliant with their political needs, someone who will support/tolerate the contractors ecosystem, and someone who has a history of financially supporting his political supporters through contracts.The talk of winning elections, running political organisations and campaigns, and the need for substantial money as a rationale or excuse for making money will not be uncommon. 

The effect of such a scenario with cutting-edge personnel, instances of collecting money for individual cases of benefits to individuals, permissions, licenses, and sending/delaying the file in the decision-making process may become common.

It must also become much more difficult for subordinate officers to oppose the instructions of senior officers or politicians, even if they are illegal or immoral. The culture of slavish submission to those in power is as well.

The “System”

The ability of officers in positions of administrative leadership to keep themselves away from the temptations of or participation in these activities and inspire or guide their subordinates away from such temptations would be their single most important role, duty, and contribution to the organisation and society.

A dimension to the moral landscape in bureaucracy is something called a “system.” Traditionally, some activities within the organisation have evolved into the practise of giving/collecting money (bribes without demanding). The institutionalisation of bribery a stand, if taken by some officers, that these are the benefits of the position or a way of achieving parity with the corporate sector for work of similar responsibility would be equally damaging to the organisation and society.

The emotional, psychological, and moral situation of younger people who want to join or have recently joined is extremely perplexing.They are most vulnerable because they don’t know what to do and lack a known role model.The sense of achievement in government is the most undefined area. Apart from the ACR, or annual assessment, where the purpose is more ritualistic, most of them get high grades.

What does self-actualisation look like for a government employee? In today’s times, where affluence is most visible, we see politicians and their industrialists, businessmen, contractors, and builders working for their organisations, moving in posh SUVs and big residential flats and bungalows. Even people working in corporations and multinationals have a rapid rise, current desirables, and family comforts that are much better than what government careers can offer. Younger people are becoming more vulnerable to unscrupulous senior officers and politicians as the transfer system for obtaining sought-after executive or field postings evolves.

Challenging for Younger Officers

For the younger officers, explaining the domain of moral or ethical dilemmas is a challenge. The false sense of superiority and accomplishment among officers, as reported in the media, and the almost addiction of some officers to bribery, nepotism, and graft, would continue to be a source of concern. Collecting money simply as an addictive behavior, where there is no obvious need, such as class 3 or class 4 employees, which of course cannot be justified for any reason, but which nonetheless becomes addiction.

More money for more glamorous and bigger postings, and on and on. So the circle of richer friends, relatives, and social needs of family, as well as the ever-present needling thought of what would happen if one lost the postings or after subsequent retirement, becomes addictive. As a result, a distorted sense of accomplishment and courage or valour emerges. Not that our materialistic and “who cares?” society helps resolve this in any way.

Should one begin by informing younger officers about the moral issues involved in taking a realistic approach to service conditions? Even if the salary for a similar level in a corporate organisation is much higher, the cost to the company approach would be comparable in most, if not all, positions.

Many officers and staff may look up to officers in senior positions as role models. If one is in a position of authority, it is easier to insist on following rules and, more importantly, on overcoming temptations. Younger officers should be trained to do so. Morality is not only a part of character; it can be learned. Explaining to the officers that for a person in a position of power, money is only an idea, as most of the needs are taken care of: residential, mobility.

Communication, health, and other benefits are provided by his position. It goes without saying that the government provides the best service conditions available anywhere.With increasing inequality in society and a lack of employment opportunity, people joining leadership positions need “moral intelligence.”

Training at the personal level, by way of psychological training to overcome momentary emotional gusts of greed or lust, is important. Morality can also be learned, as can any life skill, and measures to train staff are possible. Apart from the ethical or moral nature of character, it need not be a mysterious process. 

Self-discipline, meditation, the practise of postponing immediate satiation, and regular psychometric testing (even though it’s possible to misunderstand it) can be a way ahead. This could also include a “situation reaction test” or the “what if” scenario. Learning from the social media , the innate personal need of achievement, seen through posting selfies and the need for likes and recognition, could also be used to acknowledge moral behaviour.

Though its simplistic version has its downsides, every person in a leadership position will be observed under a microscope, and any indiscretion shown by them will have a cascading, exponentially damaging effect down the line in the organisation and society. This realisation, need to be brought into the minds of the younger officers . 

JB Dsouza, an ex-Navy officer from among the first batch of IAS, had written a good autobiography, “No trumpets or bugles: Recollections of an Unrepentant Babu.” He had given many instances from his career, of his ways of negotiating through such situations.

Preparing young officers and recruits for the landscape of moral and ethical issues in public life is necessary. Passing a difficult exam is one thing. But the ability to cope with “a way of life in administrative leadership” is entirely different. For most people, it is inevitably a commitment. One’s moral compass, family upbringing, or the underlying philosophy of the Constitution, Mahatma’s Talisman of ensuring benefits of any administrative action to the weakest and poorest sections of society, and awareness that 1% indiscretion causes 100% damage to an organisation and 1000% damage to society are all required. Leadership examples influence the organisation immensely.

At the personal level, mental training or the ability to overcome momentary emotional surges of greed or lust by doing away with comparing your social or financial status with friends or relatives and not allowing personal prejudice against any group to influence decision-making in organisations is crucial.

Thus, providing administrative, organizational, and moral leadership in the volatile next few decades is going to be tough.

Officers joining the All India/Allied Services are the most prized lot in the country, with a high CTC package and an even higher “cost to society”  package.

Apart from individual leadership being moral, more in times of pressure or intimidation than in times of temptation, material as well as immaterial, the ability to inspire and lead the staff, to personally overcome and train staff to overcome such “bribery or nepotism moments,” would be the need for ethical leadership.

But by being honest, one cannot use this as an excuse to be inefficient or keep playing the victim card.

So is corruption a social, moral, legal, or psychological challenge? At individual level, for officers and employees, it is matter of choice to say no whatever the consequences or the loss of possible advantage in monetary or organisational and social terms. Those who will try to follow the rules may get mostly sidetracked. But there can be nothing called “side posting” in government. Every role has an opportunity to create impact, even the most clerical one, if one has taken the time to learn the craft of administration.

The last brush would be, “I will issue and obey only such orders that are both moral and legal!”

Nothing puzzling, really.

“My poet’s heart gives me strength to face political problems, particularly those which have a bearing on my conscience.” – Atal Bihari Vajpayee

About the Author

Sameer Unhale, Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI

Also read India’s Bureaucracy Requires Urgent Reforms by Dhiraj Nayyar

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