An officer and an expert

An officer and an expert

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

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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