District administration in the context of public management

Overview of public systems management

Public systems are large, complex, open, common, socioeconomic-political- environmental systems that influence and impact every stakeholder of the system. These are usually managed and administered by the government(s) or their agencies. An elaborate institutional arrangement is often required to manage or administer such systems well. These systems may be identified on the basis of specific functionality across geography or on the basis of multifunctionality across small to very large geography or territory.

For instance, functionally, all public utilities and organizations dealing with water, air, land, pollution, environment, electricity, public transport, public health centers, primary schools, and human rights are typically part of public systems. Geographically or territorially, public systems include national government, state (provincial) governments, district administration, municipality administration, and such.

As philosopher Aristotle said, The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is, when individual parts are connected together to form one entity, they are worth more than if the parts were in silos. All public systems, by virtue of their nature, have the critical role of creating an enabling environment for other smaller systems, institutions, organizations, and individuals to function well.

In the overall context of governance in any country, sound management of public systems is critical. Since a district or its equivalent in any country has been the basic unit of territorial administration, the study of district administration as a lens to understand the public system management of a country, and India in particular, has been attempted in this book.

With increasing uncertainty and chaos in socioeconomic-weather conditions across geographies and countries, the need for coordination from a higher level of governance is imminent. This generally felt need among the people has gradually legitimized the authoritarian approach of governments even among democratic governments. On the whole, greater uncertainty and chaos at micro levels of operations have been increasing the significance of public systems management in countries across the world.

Uncertainty and chaos at lower levels raise the level of complexities when subsystems are integrated for visioning, planning, and execution at a system level. Thus, coordinating a large public system, even in a digitally governed society, becomes highly challenging. For instance, the handling of the recent pandemic due to the COVID-19 virus by nations across the globe is a reality check. Successful coordination of such large, open common systems requires transparency, cooperation, trust, and great appreciation of systems science principles, aspects that are usually short and possibly not well integrated among the stakeholders managing or administering the public systems.

Differences in understanding, beliefs, cultures, and values among different stakeholders of a public system make it hard to achieve coordination and synergy in operations. Considering this situation, scholars in public administration have often cited that it is difficult to have a general principle of public administration that may be applicable in different countries and even within a country.

Here in this book, we, however, offer a theoretical perspective that might resolve the individual differences in beliefs, cultures, and values while operating in the domain of common public systems. As every' time a nation is formed, individuals agree on some common principles on how they shall be governed. These common principles and laws are often enshrined in the constitution of a nation; written or otherwise. It is only justifiable that the public systems that are for common good need to be managed or administered by the nation’s constitutional values rather than by any individual beliefs, cultures, and values (or similar nonrepresentative coterie).

Further, if there were commonalities in constitutional values of different countries, then we may even be able to develop a generalized framework for public systems management or administration that may be applicable across different countries. We explore this possibility in Chapter 2 of the book.

While there are several public systems in a given country, district administration or its equivalent in any country is one of the most complex and vital public systems within that country. It is multifunctional and spans over a critical geographical size and population of a given country. So, district administration has therefore been used as a lens to study and explain the system of public administration or public management in a given country. More importantly, it is to be noted that district administration is very' significant to public administration in general, given its strategic central location in the overall hierarchy of administration from the federal government of a nation to people/citizens at local communities. Territorially, the district is the crucial point of coordination both for the federal government and for the villages, towns, and small communities (Gram Panchayat (GP)/Ward). In the above context, public administration could be better understood and better coordinated if the dynamics of district administration were better understood. Accordingly, in this book, we have taken district administration as the lens to critically study public administration in general.

While parallels are drawn with regard to the district or its equivalent in 14 unique countries around the globe in the fourth section of this chapter, the focus of this book is to present critical perspectives of public systems management in India through the lens of district administration.

The present system of public administration in India can be traced back to the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, followed by the East India Company and then by the British Empire in the middle of the 17th century. In that sense, the district as an institution has been in India since 1772, that is, for about a quarter of a millennium.

The broad administrative structure of public systems management in India today consists of national government, state (provincial) government, district administration, and block administration. The national government is headed by the Prime Minister, the state government is headed by the Chief Minister, the district administration is headed by the District Magistrate (DM) and Collector, and the block administration is headed by the Block Development Officer.

Both at the national level and state level, under the leadership of the Prime Minister, Chief Minister, and the council of ministers, the senior career bureaucrats facilitate administration of all public systems. These bureaucrats are taken from a senior civil service of the nation, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)1. At the district and below the district, the administration is headed and administered by the DM, kind of a public administrative face of that geographical area. The DM, in turn, directly reports to the Chief Secretary, the senior-most career bureaucrat of respective state governments.

In the following sections, we look at the origins and evolution of public administration at the district level in India, a level that is almost at the middle between the highest level of governance in a country and the governed, the people or citizens of a country.

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