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