Humour in Administration

Broadcast talk for AIR Hyderabad on 28.7.00 at 9-30 p.m.

Administration is a dull, dry affair. It does not require any special brilliance. Amongst the many things it specifically does not require is a sense of humour.

The selection procedures for administrative jobs are designed to secure that no person with a potential for laughter should get in. But even the toughest security system has not been able to secure its objective. It is people with the most stringent security around them who get killed.

And so, in spite of all the precautions and precedents, instances of humour do crop up in administration. Some of them are entirely unintended – like a revolver firing accidentally.

Delay is a part of the instruments of administration. Time is a great healer, they say. It is also a great solver of problems. One very senior officer always had a number of old files pending in his ‘In’ tray. Every six months or so he would pick up a heap of them and put them in the ‘Out’ tray, saying, ‘ I suppose these problems have sorted themselves out’. And indeed they had. Problems don’t wait for solutions. If they are not tackled in time, they get fed up and go away. Or they commit suicide.

In administration words don’t mean what they say. If you don’t receive a reply from a Government office for a long time, you remind it. You may get a reply that ‘the matter is under consideration’. It means that the file is lost. After some months, you remind again. This time reply would be that the matter is under ‘active consideration’. It means that the file is lost, but attempts are being made to trace it.

Circulars issued by government to lower officials are sometime marked as ‘confidential’, ‘secret’, and ‘top secret’. The information in the first one is intended to be shared with colleagues. The  ‘confidential’ circular is intended to be given publicity. The ‘top secret is to be accorded the maximum publicity.

Administration has its formalities. During the British rule, every formal letter used to have the closing: ‘I have the honour to be, Your most obedient servant’. It was abolished in India after Independence though it is still prevalent in England. In the old Madras Presidency, a young entrant to the civil service named MacPherson was scandalized by such a servile way of concluding letters especially to the natives. He therefore wrote to the Chief Secretary suggesting that this practice should be abolished. The Chief Secretary wanted to drive home the point that it was a mere formality and did not really make the writer a servant of the addressee. He wrote back to him:

My dear MacPherson,

This does not mean that my heart is gushing forth in love for you.

Yours sincerely,

John Armstrong

According to official etiquette, a letter or file is not simply ‘sent’ from one officer to another. It is ‘submitted’ by a junior to a senior. The senior, in turn,  ‘transmits’ to the junior. Any transgression of this practice can land one in serious trouble.

Once a junior officer sent a note to his senior, which was supposed to go up under the name of the superior. He signed that note. Thereupon, he got a note of reprimand from his boss: ‘You are not supposed to sign the note. Please erase your signature, and sign below the erasure.’

In any administration some formal motions have to be made before a proposal is sanctioned. Evidence must be created that there has been not only consideration, but also reconsideration of every proposal. I once saw a file of the Ministry of External Affairs seeking a sanction of funds to ‘organize a spontaneous welcome’ to a visiting dignitary. For that purpose it wanted to hire a thousand lorries to transport twenty thousand persons from villages near the airport to stand on both sides of the road to cheer the VIP lustily. The Finance Department observed that since our relations with the country were good and the dignitary was fairly well known in India, many people could be expected to come out on their own. The scale of expenditure could therefore be halved. The Ministry reiterated the proposal saying that the VIP in question was a dark horse even in his own country and had become Prime Minister by a sheer stroke of luck. He would not therefore attract crowds on his own. It was in the national interest to make a show of popular welcome to him. The Finance Department, thus having been educated in the fine points of diplomacy, relented.

The next day the papers reported that people turned out in large numbers to give the honoured visitor a spontaneous welcome!

In Nainital– a hill station in UP, I saw a board outside a cluster of flats. It read: ‘Sleepy Hollow – Flats for Deputy Ministers and Senior Officials’. Strangely, no one took objection to the unintended aspersion.

In one of the new blocks of buildings of the State Secretariat at Hyderabad, there are two lifts. One is marked ‘General’. It is meant for every body. It is slow — and often out of order. The notice on the other lift proclaims that it is only ‘For ladies, handicapped persons, and senior officers’. A good grouping indeed!

In spite of the best attempts of people in administration, and unbeknownst to them humour, like love, sometimes sprouts in the most unsuspected crevices.

The famous American humorist Will Rogers once said rightly, ‘I don’t make jokes. I just watch the Government and report the facts.’ People like Parkinson — famous for his ‘law’, Peter — renowned for his ‘principle’, Murphy and others have made a fortune by exposing humour in administration. And that not only in Government, but also in the corporate sector. In both, there are two types of managers – those who manage what they do not understand; and those who understand what they do not manage. That situation often gives rise to humour. Believe me, a shrewd executive will try never to betray his sense of humour. In administration, to laugh openly is to lose your dignity. To become naked as it were. People in administration do enjoy humour, but in strict privacy of their homes. In offices they wear masks. Those who don’t might just manage to survive. Like I did.

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