Working Papers

Frontline Functionaries in India: The Absent Policy

Rashmi Sharma

State Capacity Initiative, Centre For Policy Research

March 23, 2023

In the context of a high level of dissatisfaction with the delivery of government services in India, this paper traces the evolution of policy regarding key actors in this process— frontline functionaries or street-level bureaucrats. Frontline functionaries form a special subset of the bureaucracy as they come in close contact with citizens, and negotiate government policy with specific citizen needs. The paper provides a historical background illustrating the continuity of colonial era ideas with the current policy regarding frontline functionaries, and also examines it against broader developments in policy and the administrative structure. The policy regarding frontline functionaries is scrutinised against their three roles: as government employees, as professionals or skilled workers in specific fields, and as workers serving the community.

The paper shows that frontline functionaries, only loosely connected to the government before colonization, subsequently became government employees, as the government sought to increase the efficiency of revenue collection from land and forests, and to maintain order. Because the colonial government minimized administrative costs, it paid frontline functionaries very poorly, placed them near the bottom of an extremely hierarchical bureaucratic structure and provided them with minimal promotion avenues. Frontline functionaries were not considered worthy of serious responsibility, expected to follow orders, had little education and training and were treated harshly by senior officials. Consequently, their performance was unsatisfactory. They were often corrupt and exploited the community.