Policy Briefs & Reports

The Pandemic and Public Administration: A survey of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) Officers

Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Deepak Sanan, Karnamadakala Rahul Sharma, Aditya Unnikrishnan

Centre for Policy Research

February 4, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused extraordinary hardship since India’s first case was reported in Thrissur, Kerala in January 2020. Individuals and communities have since then made drastic changes to their behaviours, daily routines and lives, quite often in response to announcements or regulatory direction provided by the state. Officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) are important actors at the forefront of framing, implementing and evaluating the state’s response to the pandemic, and uniquely positioned between the political executive and India’s massive frontline state. Their views on the state’s response, preparedness, the public and stakeholders in governance, and their positions on important normative debates underlying policy formulation and implementation therefore offer useful insights into both how the Indian state governs, and how it might govern better in the future.

This report presents the results of a representative survey of over 500 IAS officers conducted between August and September 2020, 7-8 months into the pandemic. The survey sought to engage members of the IAS in reflecting on the critical challenges, decisions, and trade-offs that confronted public administrators charged with managing the state response at different levels. In doing so, it revealed both widely shared and sharply contested views on a range of subjects, including the role of the civil servant, executive and bureaucratic functioning in a crisis, and perceptions of and relations between the state, the public, and other important actors and institutions.

The report finds that on the one hand, IAS officers are remarkably consistent in expressing high levels of motivation and public service commitment and endorse the view that the Indian state and bureaucracy galvanise resources and deliver reasonably well in times of crisis. On the other hand, there is a consistent tension between some strongly expressed ideals and the realities of administrative action, especially on engagement and communication with, and trust in the public. Finally, there is significant diversity among IAS officers when it comes to perceptions of key stakeholders (civil society, international agencies and the media) and a striking distrust of the private sector. The report also highlights the diversity in responses of officers across state cadres and seniority in several places through disaggregated analysis.

This report, by the State Capacity Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research is part of a larger body of work on understanding the norms and values underpinning different state institutions in India. As we develop this body of work over the coming years, our goal is to continue to probe not just how the state performs, but how it perceives its own capacity, why and how it makes choices, imagines possibilities for governance, and engages with citizens.