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Babucracy needs a change menu

Newspaper reports indicate that under Deputy Prime Minster L.K. Advani’s initiative, two professors from IIM Ahmedabad carried out a da...

Written by R K Pachauri |
August 12, 2003

Newspaper reports indicate that under Deputy Prime Minster L.K. Advani’s initiative, two professors from IIM Ahmedabad carried out a daylong training programme, attended by 30 secretaries to the Government of India.

This is a welcome development. One hopes it represents a realisation in the political leadership on the need to upgrade our bureaucracy’s knowledge skills.

A major opportunity in this direction is provided by the recent report of the group that reviewed the ‘‘system of performance appraisal, promotion, empanelment and placement for the All India Services and other group A services’’. Headed by Lt General (retired) Surinder Nath, former chairman of the Union Public Service Commission, this group has taken a refreshing view of changes required to make the civil services more effective. A cynic would probably conclude that, first, this report will not receive the attention it deserves. And second, it will be opposed by the bureaucracy itself.

This would be unfortunate. The truth is the Indian civil services have not changed at all since Independence, except in terms of a decline in their standing. Fifty years ago individuals in the system were referred to as civil servants. A quarter century later this description shifted to bureaucrat. But today every newspaper refers to even the highest levels of the civil service as babudom and the illustrious incumbents as babus.

And yet the calibre of individuals entering the service has probably never been higher. IIT engineers, IIM graduates, doctors from our best medical institutions enter the service today — and are then lost in the oblivion of a generalist system.

It was in the mid-1980s that P. Chidambram, as minister responsible for personnel and training and driven by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, contemplated major changes in the civil services. A massive programme of training was launched. A provision for lateral entry at higher levels and periods of secondment to the private sector was discussed.

Important changes considered were effectively sabotaged. But the system of training was retained. This has weakened over time.

The result is today of a total of 1,400 officials identified for the three dozen one-week training programmes organised annually, less than half attend. If one looks at partial absenteeism during various sessions of an individual programme, effective attendance is even lower.

In the 20 odd two-week courses organised, attendance is barely 300 of the slotted 1,000. Like so many good ideas, this too has become a ritual.

Our civil services were designed during colonial times. There were hardly any other employment opportunities available. Today, any good civil servant would not wish to hang his gloves at 60, when he or she retires. Most aspire to a second career elsewhere.

Often, this is manoeuvred in the form of post-retirement positions, such as heads of commissions and other pseudo-official bodies. An example is the near monopoly IAS officers have acquired as heads of regulatory commissions.

But could the same person not succeed in other professions? Those who were bold enough to leave the service have generally done well: Jagdish Khattar in Maruti Udyog, Vineet Nayyar as a successful software entrepreneur, Deepak Nayyar as an eminent academic and the late S. Guhan as a distinguished intellectual.

By resisting reform, the civil services are only accelerating the move to their own irrelevance. If more civil servants were confident of leaving government and succeeding elsewhere — and actually did so — then regard for them would go up. And so would opportunities. They could continue to contribute right up to age 70.

The Surinder Nath group’s recommendations could be a starting point. They outline a thorough appraisal system, a greater degree of specialisation and a system of promotions that ensures the best talent reaches higher levels.

As the report points out, in the initial years officers should be assured promotions based on generally satisfactory performance along the time-scale basis. Over a period of time, when an officer is being considered for positions dealing with policy, programme formulation and implementation, selection must be based on an in-depth assessment of both demonstrated performance and requisite knowledge and skills.

The recommendations also allow for officers leaving the service at age 50, so that only the most suitable reach the top. In a growing economy, other professions too would benefit. They would gain experienced hands, who have served 25-30 years in government.

One aspect the Surinder Nath group has not dealt with is the possibility of movement in and out of government, involving the NGO sector, research and academic bodies and even the private sector. With the licence-permit raj over, there could hardly be conflict of interest if government officials spent time with a particular private company. In fact sleazy and underhand dealings may actually be reduced if someone could work with the private sector and enhance lifetime savings.

Perhaps officialdom is not quite ready for such a radical step. But it may be worthwhile implementing it on a trial basis, with a select list of upright private sector organisations, for a period of, say, three years. In a globalised world, it is India Inc that would matter. As in Japan, the distinction between public and private service should gradually disappear.

The changes required in the civil services relate not only to systemic changes but also attitude. This would scarcely be easy to achieve. I think it was American diplomat William Clarke who said regulation has gone from India but regulators have not.

It is necessary to transform the thinking of government officers beyond their role as regulators. The rest of the economy is changing; so must they.

(The author is director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi)

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