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Friday, October 15, 2021

Wrong end of the frame

Proposed changes in how UPSC entrants are allotted services misunderstand administration and reform.

Written by K M Chandrasekhar |
Updated: May 24, 2018 12:01:52 am
The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. (File)

I have seen statements by many of my colleagues on a recent missive sent out to cadre controlling authorities on allotting candidates successful in the UPSC examination to various services after the foundation course rather than on the basis of preferences indicated by them and marks obtained in the examination. This leaves me somewhat bemused.

In my time, allotment to the services was made on the basis of the marks secured in the UPSC examination. As I recall, the maximum score was 1750 for the IAS and 1850 for the Indian Foreign Service. Inter se ranks within the service could, however, change based on the marks secured at the foundation course and the professional courses. The marks secured in these examinations were added to the UPSC marks while fixing final ranks.

At that time, and subsequently, the UPSC acquired a reputation for integrity, transparency, independence and credibility. It is in this context that I cannot fully fathom what the government is attempting to do this year. If selections to the services are to be done after the foundation course, then the UPSC examination would be reduced to a qualifying examination. I doubt whether this could be the intention. The UPSC must not be converted into an institution that merely provides a bunch of probationers who will be fitted into various services later after completion of the foundation course. The integrity of the process will then be called into question, the credibility of governmental processes being generally not too highly regarded. There could be allegations of capture of the selection process by politicians and bureaucrats and of discrimination on the basis of region, religion, caste and community.

How the process of selection will be done is also not clear to me. The foundation course is no longer entirely done in the LBS National Academy of Administration as in the past but in various places. On what basis will the foundation course be able to determine whether an individual probationer is better suited for Railway Traffic rather than Income Tax? Who will decide which probationer will go to which service and on what basis? Is it possible to assess the potential of an officer within a few months in a foundation course conducted at different places? What happens to the marks secured in the UPSC examination? Will they be added to the foundation course scores? What will be the inter se weights given?

I am also doubtful as to whether the quality of administration will improve as a consequence of this change. Civil servants have diverse tasks to perform, multiple objectives to achieve and frequently, as governments and political masters change, their goalposts also keep shifting. I see no real problem at the base of the pyramid. All officers learn more on the job than during training. The real need is for a change in performance review and for recognition of performance as officers go up the ladder. Changing allotment procedures at the point of entry can make no difference to work output.

There are, therefore, many confusing elements in the present proposal. From what I have read, the idea emanated from the PMO. This would mean that the matter would have been studied in great detail at various levels and all possible issues thrashed out intensively in consultation with the UPSC. In that case, it would have been prudent to put out a detailed note on the suggested process change, which would perhaps have allayed many of the doubts that have been expressed by several people. Or perhaps this is just an idea still at a very preliminary stage that has been floated for a response from cadre controlling authorities. What has made the matter more confusing is the statement that it is being considered for implementation in the current year itself.

I have been concerned with the ad hoc nature of administrative reform in India. We had tried to systematise performance management through results framework documents a few years ago. This received no political support, either from this government or the previous government and, even though it made deep inroads into certain areas of governance, it eventually ground to a halt. Our performance appraisal system has been subjected to frequent change, moving from a detailed performance report to one based entirely on numerical scores and, now, to the present 360 degree assessment for empanelment. We make changes here and there, some on account of the initiative of individuals, some driven by the irresistible force of advances in technology.

I was extremely happy in November 2015, when an MoU was signed by India with Malaysia at the instance of our prime minister on collaboration in performance management, project delivery and monitoring of government programmes. The prime minister said on the occasion, “I am happy that we are strengthening our excellent cooperation in public administration and governance. I have personally interacted with PEMANDU, and am pleased that our NITI Aayog will work with them.”

This seemed to signal the start of system reform in India, going even beyond the performance management system that had been attempted earlier. PEMANDU, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit of Malaysia, was a composite system driven from the top by the Prime Minister of Malaysia himself. It goes beyond the New Public Management systems introduced in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and other countries as well as the reform measures undertaken earlier by the then (and present) Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed.

Significant change in the quality and content of administration necessarily involves a system approach based on laying down key result areas, both at strategic and implementation levels, their effective monitoring, concomitant changes in financial systems, including accrual accounting, well designed performance incentive systems, performance agreements, structural changes — all these as part of one system with deep and sustained commitment at the top.

The writer is a former cabinet secretary

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