A new kind of babu

The main task of the next cabinet secretary must be civil service reform.

Written by Manish Sabharwal | Updated: April 1, 2015 12:08 am
parliament-l We must move away from a mathematically impossible system in which everybody is above-average, tighten empanelment (currently, the pyramid looks like a cylinder because 75 per cent of officers become joint secretaries and 40 per cent reach the level of additional secretary) and put the best people, irrespective of age, in the right positions.

Politics in India has changed forever. Now, it’s the turn of the civil services to change. But can the services heal themselves or will change have to be forced by politicians under siege from exploding expectations? I’d like to make the case that change will be most enduring if it comes from within and the only criterion for choosing the new Union cabinet secretary should be willingness and ability to reform the civil services. This is particularly important because the window between the cabinet secretary’s appointment and the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations in October is critical.

Politics is experiencing an exciting churn — the generational change in the BJP and the impact of its crazy fringe on the Delhi assembly elections, a potential change or regicide in the Congress party, the magnificent resurgence of the AAP after its goofy resignation and now its internal conflicts, looming expiry dates for regional parties that don’t deliver prosperity or plumbing, campaigns innovating at the speed of Moore’s law, and more money for state governments —  all have consequences that are impossible to predict. Expectations morphing from garibi hatao to ameeri banao mean that voters care more about jobs, roads and power than about the envy of income inequality. This makes the notion that bureaucrats must protect India from its politicians and create continuity by defending the status quo dated, patronising and inappropriate. And the notion that politicians can fulfil voter expectations without civil service reform is delusional.

The cabinet secretary of India does not have the same trust, access or convening power that the chief of staff of an American president has. Not only is he stationed far away from the prime minister’s office —  in Rashtrapati Bhawan, because the viceroy was once head of government — but his ability to impose his will on secretaries who are close to retirement and who report to independent ministers is at best suspect and at worst absent. But the cabinet secretary is the government’s chief people officer even though his power over empanelment, promotion, postings etc has been unimaginatively or uncourageously exercised so far. The government and the next cabinet secretary need to do three things each in order to modernise the civil services.

First, the government must shift the cabinet secretary to the PMO. Second, it must choose the next occupant of the office based purely on his hunger for civil services reform and make sure that his brain is connected to his backbone. Third, it must empower him to work closely with the pay commission till October and then use the rest of his tenure to deliver to us a civil services that can bear outcomes. Policy outcomes are a complex cocktail of people, processes and technology but the meta-variable is the selection and reward/ punishment system for people. The next cabinet secretary must avoid the infinite activity loop that his role has traditionally been and do three things.
First, he must improve performance and career management. Seniority is an objective basis for promotion but often an ineffective one.

We must move away from a mathematically impossible system in which everybody is above-average, tighten empanelment (currently, the pyramid looks like a cylinder because 75 per cent of officers become joint secretaries and 40 per cent reach the level of additional secretary) and put the best people, irrespective of age, in the right positions. Restoring the confidentiality of the process is critical to reinstating its honesty. And establishing objectivity and trust is critical to restoring its effectiveness.

Second, the new cabinet secretary must formalise lateral entry and political appointments. Any effective organisation has to balance specialists with generalists as well as insiders with outsiders. India’s policy problems are not insurmountable but many of them require specialist input that only lateral entry could provide. This could be done by introducing a new point of entry at the joint secretary level; designating 25 per cent of the top jobs as posts that can be filled through direct political appointments which are coterminous with the government’s term (for instance, 4,500 people resign when a new American president takes over, while, in Delhi, only 10 people do); and easing out civil servants who are not shortlisted to move up beyond a point (similar to the lieutenant colonel level cut-off in the army that avoids top-heaviness).

Third, the pay commission must be reimagined as a performance commission. Pay commissions have never received the “accepted-in-totality” honour that finance commissions get because they end up being “compensation commissions” and mostly formulate implementation plans that lack political economy considerations. The Seventh Pay Commission has a chance to make history by initiating a bold rupture with the past, like the 14th Finance Commission had done. The next cabinet secretary must work with the pay commission and the NITI Aayog to synthesise the useful recommendations of past administrative reform commissions into a plan that can help accelerate the changing of Delhi’s role in ruling India, started by the 14th Finance Commission. The 900 IAS officers who live in Delhi must be reduced to 500. Civil servants must be moved to a cost-to-government compensation structure through the monetisation of all benefits. A mechanism that separates the compensation review for the bottom 90 per cent of civil servants must also be devised for the future.

Politicians and bureaucrats who are talented and ambitious are frustrated with the current system. Chief ministers struggle with the paradox that political priorities like water, school education, labour and health are currently considered as painful postings by the permanent, generalist civil service. Bureaucrats — particularly the talented and idealistic ones — are tired of a system in which you get the top job only two years before retirement. It is a system that does not distinguish between fraud, incompetence and bad luck when things go wrong, has no room for career-planning, and often grants postings based on deafness and blindness rather than competence. The most recent cabinet secretaries have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The next one is being engaged at a time when we have made a new appointment for our tryst with destiny. He must do his bit by boldly demolishing his cradle. The government should start by vacating some space in the PMO.

The writer is chairman, Teamlease Services
editpage@expressindia.com

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  1. B
    bonku
    Apr 1, 2015 at 10:16 am
    ?
    Reply
    1. A
      AP
      Apr 2, 2015 at 5:10 pm
      When I see the amount of corruption Babus are doing, I think that UPSC board and education system must have a special and mandatory subject on how to do corruption
      Reply
      1. H
        humour
        Apr 1, 2015 at 8:00 am
        Basically, he is asking the government to make him Cabinet Secretary.
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        1. I
          iqbal singh
          Apr 1, 2015 at 9:06 am
          I think it is the best possible solution we have in the present scenario. And I believe it is going to happen in near future.
          Reply
          1. A
            ashok
            Apr 1, 2015 at 9:42 am
            Abc
            Reply
            1. A
              ashok
              Apr 1, 2015 at 2:27 pm
              It would help if the cabinet secretary had a two year term, which was not extended interminably.
              Reply
              1. S
                sid
                Apr 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm
                They might have tried getting into the government or they may have chosen to do something else. I am suggesting we should correct the faults rather than commit more in the process.
                Reply
                1. S
                  sid
                  Apr 1, 2015 at 10:38 am
                  Lateral entry should not be formalized. we have a system in place where an independent body UPSC ess the canditates based on merit and recommends them to the various positions. The generalist specialist debate if looked from "generalist and specialist" point of view would be helpful. There should be a consultative mechanism rather than creating a window for political appointments which leads to conflicts within the service and some kind of cartel system affecting the administration. The problem is more with implementation which should be addressed first to further correct the policy formulation process.
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                  1. M
                    Mahavir Singh
                    Apr 1, 2015 at 1:44 pm
                    Good idea . Beautiful suggestions . Best time to implement otherwise we are missing the train since long.
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                    1. R
                      R.Sundaram
                      Apr 1, 2015 at 10:24 am
                      A Utopian dream. Reforming the IAS system of appointing Cabinet Secretary or any other senior govt post is Mission Impossible. You are making outrageous suggestions like reducing the number of IAS in Delhi by half and lateral entry at JS levels. I bet you can republish the article in 2025 without even changing the punctuation marks. The permanent bureaucracy arrangement we inherited from Macaulay is responsible for Hindu Rate of growth and even now is stymying reforms, since the working of the Govt below the political level is of the IAS, by the IAS for the IAS.
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                      1. O
                        Outer Delhi Times
                        May 1, 2015 at 10:29 pm
                        I strongly disagree, the cream no longer goes to civil services.
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                        1. R
                          Raja
                          Apr 1, 2015 at 5:18 am
                          The author's wish-list has some merit, but it is basically hypothetical. A major problem is that more than 50% of the bureaucrats are from the reserved category who suffer from severe inferiority complex. Most of the good ones are from the general category who are frustrated for obvious reasons. The caste-based reservation system is the bane of the Indian society.
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                          1. N
                            NP
                            Apr 1, 2015 at 9:00 am
                            Dream On!!
                            Reply
                            1. S
                              sandy mandy
                              Apr 1, 2015 at 11:29 am
                              This article seems to be a case of sour grapes. in my opinion, during his 20s Sabharwal must have tried getting into the IAS but could not even clear the prelims. So he has a grudge against those who made it to the the IAS. He should move on in life and forget about the bitter past.
                              Reply
                              1. V
                                vaishnavi g
                                Apr 3, 2015 at 5:03 pm
                                timely and practical suggestions given.requires lot from polity of all shades and top civil servants for their implementation.as political will to implement administrative reforms has been lacking mostly reforms have not been carried out.
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                                1. V
                                  VS
                                  Apr 3, 2015 at 3:57 am
                                  Former PM Manmohan Singh promised but was unable to implement administrative reforms due to bureaucratic obduracy. BJP government must do so soon else it would fall into the trap too. All its other reforms/programs will be effective only after the administrative machinery is overhauled.
                                  Reply
                                  1. R
                                    Rici
                                    Apr 1, 2015 at 12:22 pm
                                    Kindly correct..Its congress rate of growth...which continued till 1990. After that the growth rate of 7-8 % can be called Hindu rate of growth up to large extent..Thanks..
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