An officer and an expert

The generalist civil service must make room for more domain expertise.

Written by Meeta Rajivlochan | Updated: May 28, 2015 12:17 am
civil service, Indian civil service, civil service job, senior civil servants, IAS, Mussoorie Academy,IAS training, IAS traini8ng school, indian express, express news The complexities of day-to-day administration are such that senior civil servants are often handicapped by a lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject.

Can leadership ability and communication skills supersede domain knowledge for a senior-level civil service job? This is one of the most important questions the Seventh Pay Commission needs to ask. Emolument structures are concerned not just with what pay is appropriate for a particular rank, but also what qualifications and skills are needed for it. For decades, the basic assumption in the civil service has been that as a generalist service, it need only build up man-management capabilities and leadership skills. But increasingly, the complexities of day-to-day administration are such that senior civil servants are often handicapped by a lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject.

An excessive reliance on consultants is often the result. But there is no substitute for in-house knowledge. Even in the private sector, cross-industry changes are rare. In the civil service, by contrast, these are a daily affair.

This is not to question the idea of a generalist civil service. After all, management executives get broad training in human resource management, marketing and finance, and over the years, build up specialist knowledge in a few sectors. But whether it is sales, finance, insurance, urban housing, education or infrastructure, each sector has its own defining features and ground-level realities that the official working in that sector must be conversant with.

A generalist civil service should not equate to a near-absence of domain expertise. Unfortunately, over the years, with some exceptions, this is what has come to characterise the IAS. Lack of knowledge is the single biggest roadblock in our socio-economic development. The political executive depends on the civil service for in-depth knowledge that is rarely forthcoming, which is why so many policies bite the dust. Few officers have the capacity to analyse a sector, identify its leverage points and devise an implementation strategy accordingly. The present system does not require officers to acquire such knowledge.

There are many civil servants who do develop domain expertise on their own. States like Maharashtra have even experimented with posting officers in the same sector for many years at a stretch, with good results. But today, we cannot simply point at these few people. We also need to notice that an unconscionably large number of IAS officers remain clueless about their work. Witness the plethora of hollow contracts and unimplementable policies. The political executive depends on officers to ensure the creation of dependable policies and fair contracts for the public. The officers are letting the political leadership down.

We do not discount the two-year training provided by the Mussoorie Academy to IAS officers. That training sufficiently equips an officer for land records administration and working with local self-government bodies, which is what most IAS officers do in the first decade of their career. What the Mussoorie training cannot possibly equip officers for is the kind of domain expertise that policymaking jobs require. This is a problem long recognised by the department of personnel and the Mussoorie Academy. The departmental solution to provide two- to eight-week training courses is not adequate.

Those courses are too general. The quality of knowledge provided is limited, and there is no connection between training and posting.

The fact remains that in a developed economy, each sector requires a depth of knowledge that such short-term courses cannot hope to address. An officer working in public health, for instance, needs to know what a risk-adjusted mortality rate is. But such knowledge is generally not required to get the job.

But then, it is not the current understanding among bureaucrats that it is their job to read contracts and that they will be accountable for lapses, if any. Most of the time, one suspects, they are too intimidated by the fine print. Once the lapses are located, there is a search for someone to sacrifice. No one changes the rule that says that no domain expertise is required for any posting.

The simple means to address this problem would be to devise postgraduate diplomas for different sectors in public administration. Officers should be asked to complete a diploma in whatever sector they desire a posting in. Whether they choose to complete these studies through a regular or correspondence course should be left to them. This way, the government would ensure a minimum level of knowledge in the incumbents of policymaking jobs. And senior policymaking positions should require both the diploma and some years of work in that sector.

There is no reason why the Indian public and economy should suffer the ill results of lack of knowledge among senior civil servants. It is high time the pay commission changed these basics of how the civil service functions.

The writer is an IAS officer of the 1990 batch, Maharashtra cadre. Views are personal

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    Dr. Satyapal
    Oct 31, 2015 at 9:37 pm
    Much relevant discussion, it's high time to evaluate and examine the reasons for not achieving the minimum target fixed by the consution. We can't blame only politicians only, so called bureaucratics IAS are more responsible that We are failed to provide the basic aminities to the people of india. They consider themselves as the King of the district and behave like they are providing any thing to people from their pocket. As far as their knowledge is concern, they are not ready to listen/ read anything and doing great loss to Indian society . Let's hope Indian express will raise this issue and government will take appropriate action.
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    1. I
      INDIA
      May 28, 2015 at 12:11 pm
      Perhaps, it's not right to judge the domain knowledge of an IAS officer, the main challenge is to remove obsolete laws which makes it difficult for an officer to a decide In Gujarat, the civil servants have proved their abilities so it is also about how political executive functions. political leaderships will power and Co operation is necessary to make projects work. Finally, it's the right exposure of various fields makes an IAS officer to tackle challenges. Thus working in dynamic departments will civil servants to achieve practical knowledge which is more important than bookish
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        AARAAM
        May 28, 2015 at 10:01 am
        Good article. But much more fundamental is common-sense. In journalism, the 5Ws 1 H questioning, forms the base for news. In similar way, IAS officials should cultivate asking appropriate questions. These, themselves will enable 90% right decisions. I can add a few more to above set of standard questions: 1. What else? 2. If not, how else? 3. Where else? 4. At which place? 5. Whose project? etc. ( One can add more). Point is, common-sense can help to solve 90% problems. Rest only may be domain expertise, --generally speaking.
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          AARAAM
          May 28, 2015 at 4:29 pm
          suppose you have DOMAIN knowledge to construct sewage line. Will that be enough? Author has put forth his views on IAS officials governing all enterprises. Now as an expert in sewage what will you do unless you don't have the common knowledge that it needs to be laid underground; that it needs certain amount of money; that, particular amount could be collected from apartment dwellers/ taxes/ corporation/ Govt. grants etc; that simple knowledge of sewage line alone will not do but managing 100s of others who will be working to be coordinated ; that though you might be sewage line expert, you must also know Pert- CPM charts to speed up w projects to save on project-cost by 'nil' time-over runs, cost -over-runs; you must also be good at leadership; good at keeping track of money; materials, order-to-delivery time tracking; being sewage expert alone will not enable you to write letters in correct language to rope-in addl. investment for your sewage work etc etc- Oh! you will not understand as, you will be inside sewage line. (working, of course!)
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            Anupam
            May 31, 2015 at 11:37 am
            To get into civil services one has to know everything in depth with proper analysis and understanding.. Being generalist means having very good knowledge in most of the subjects not necessarily to be the best.. and it is very much needed to serve the diversity..I know this because I have cleared engineering, management and striving for civil services now
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              Arun Sharma
              May 28, 2015 at 4:16 pm
              We need to take views of British people and experts of other countries if the current system is right. Politicians and Babus will not like to revamp it as we love to continue with whatever system British left in India. Do we have any system of our own?
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                leo-7 watching
                May 28, 2015 at 6:51 am
                The IAS is a defeunct coLlnial era service and its demise time has come , India needs managers to manage the Indian economy and specialists direct from the market with 3 to 5 yers of expierence as engineers , scientists , armed forces officers , docters , agriculture experts , bankers , Cas , Mbas railway aviation and shipping experts need to be recruited on three to five years contracts where there is free movement from public to private and international organisations and these professionals are then paid handsome ries and have oppurtunity to work and make dollar ries and not as thesildars , thekedars , collectores and other positions where they are supposed to manage land but end up bUilding illgotten wealth . honest officers are hounded , transferred and forced to leave the service .
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                  Chavali
                  May 29, 2015 at 7:20 am
                  The All India Services were carved out as distinct from IAS for specialist jobs like IAAS, IRS, IFoS etc., but again the people were considered for some positions of so called generalist vacancies which they totally failed to handle. The IAS on the other hand lack specialist skills in certain positions. Again a person from Medicine background considered for Health Ministry, so on so forth, but this also helped in lobbying and bitter I know better atude. Some are encouraged to do higher education abroad but not used for specialist jobs by political leaders. The best system you design and put in operation we try to find exception to accommodate one or other. Ofcourse, reforms are required in with paradigm shift on the entire gamut rather than cosmetic changes here and there.
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                    Dipanjan
                    May 28, 2015 at 3:49 pm
                    As per my little knowledge, I think, there should be an preliminary check done on the officers in the training academy. Based on that, the postings need to be igned. The person who got training in revenue administration, must be posted as an istant collector and the person who is interested in health care, be posted as per. The author very neatly provided the example of the MBA students who initially trained in all subjects but majors in a specific area. A revision in the training curriculum would help a lot to our future leaders to choose their respective fields and eventually it will help in the progress of our country.
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                      Udainarayn Dvibedy
                      May 28, 2015 at 11:11 pm
                      Excellent analysis,one way is to take exam after 10 years of service in the specialised field or even follow British model and abandon this cl alltogether.A seasoned administrator like Modi is also handicapped.
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                      1. H
                        Harish Kumar
                        Jun 1, 2015 at 1:53 pm
                        I beg to differ. Civil servants have failed to deliver in 68 years. We must reduce their strength and also strength in the Government/State Government offices. Must follow principle of minimum government and maximum governance. Major chunk of Civil servants retire as Secretaries without any delivery. The honest officers suffer as they do not have political clout. Any training to them will be waste of money, time and additional burden on exchequer. Outsource governmental functions wherever possible i.e. why you need so many people in the offices for making ry pay bills, why it cannot be outsourced, this is just one example, there can be many functions like this.
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                          Dr Motilal
                          May 28, 2015 at 5:51 am
                          21st century demands "PRODUCTIVE COOPERATION "between administrative skills and expertise . Development depends on effective nurturing and utilization of " HUMAN INGENUITY " . Expertise will encourage human ingenuity which could be managed for development initiatives by IAS . Multilaterally / bilaterally financed development initiatives are suffering from lack of management and result that India pays commitment charges in millions of US$ . There is need for improved management and new management skills .
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                            Munawwar Haque
                            May 28, 2015 at 2:27 pm
                            A little further insight on the subject can be availed in my write up "Good Governance - A call for systemic change". Thanks and regards
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                              Munawwar Haque
                              May 28, 2015 at 2:11 pm
                              Well the issue of serious deficit of domain expertise in public administration has become critically relevant in the context of country's socio-economic developmental needs of today. This colonial administrative structural and systemic legacy needs revamping and overhauling and the sooner done the better as there is a desperate need already. A little further insight on this can be availed here... Thanks and regards
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                                Munawwar Haque
                                May 28, 2015 at 9:46 pm
                                Well the issue of serious deficit of domain expertise in public administration has become critically relevant in the context of country's monumental welfare delivery and socio-economic developmental needs of today. Without a doubt, this archaic colonial administrative structural and systemic legacy needs serious revamping and overhauling and the sooner done the better as there is a desperate need already. A little further insight into the issue and possible solutions may be availed in my write up on web ..."Good Governance - A call for systemic change" or at aajkiduniya.blogspot Thanks and regards
                                Reply
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                                  C
                                  May 28, 2015 at 7:53 pm
                                  The writer ignores the starting point of our civil service: the appointment in a district. That requires a "generalist". It is only much later when the IAS folks move into secretariats that they need to gain specialized expertise or at least the capacity to interact with the professional experts. We have retained the colonial organization of our land into artificial districts and have elected people who like to run things from capitals through "civil servants" instead of creating more and sronger self-government.
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                                    R Saksena
                                    May 28, 2015 at 3:37 pm
                                    Not only administrators posts but specialised ones like CAG have been monopolised by the IAS but the regulators as well. In fact, more and more regulators are being set up to provide sinecures for the IAS as if no other qualified people are available in the country.
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                                      Bikash singh
                                      May 29, 2015 at 5:18 pm
                                      What has been written is what most people who are in public life on the other side of the table,ones who interact on behalf of civil society,trade and industry with IAS officers would agree totally.It is high time the necessary changes are made without which the nonimplementation issue in Govt.will keep us back.
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                                        M Shukla
                                        May 28, 2015 at 3:24 pm
                                        Why should secretary level post be the domain of the IAS. For instance MoD should be headed by a Defense officer likewise HRD by an academician and Railways by an engineer.
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                                        1. S
                                          Subhashish Dutta
                                          May 28, 2015 at 1:05 pm
                                          Much needed discussion and I am glad someone brought it up. At the risk of being too critical, I felt the article spent too many words to drive home the point that civil services need domain experts. it would have been good if the article explained a few areas in detail (e.g. IT, company affairs, agriculture, defence, highways etc) and talked about the kind of domain expertise needed and how that can be brought in.
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                                            s k
                                            May 28, 2015 at 11:04 pm
                                            Civil servants are not propetly groomed for the service they are supposed to render. After igning the sector, they should be taken to grroot for a certain period.
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