“The evil that men do lives after them;
the good is oft interred with their bones.”
— William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)
Let me begin with a caveat: I worked for thirty years in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). I clarify this at the outset so that no one accuses me of conflict of interest. The immediate urge to pen this blog arose out of recent Facebook posts by different individuals and a statement by India’s Metro Man, E. Sreedharan, which were critical of the IAS. While the Facebook comments were of the usual ill-informed, middle class genre that seeks an anti-establishment outlet for every perceived grievance, real or imaginary, Mr. Sreedharan took issue with the role of IAS officers in delays in commissioning of the Bengaluru Metro Rail Project (BMRC). In his view “An IAS officer will not have the commitment, dedication and accountability of a technocrat in executing the project on time. BMRC has had five IAS officers as chiefs so far.” His second sentence, in one sense, contradicted his first; unless Mr. Sreedharan sought to imply that IAS officers posted to the BMRC were in a tearing hurry to get themselves posted out (for which he has not offered any evidence). But it is also indicative of a tendency to lay the blame for all (or at least, most) of the ills plaguing the country on the IAS. If it were so simple, the government at the national level has only to wind up the IAS and, hey presto, the era of efficiency and prosperity would be promptly ushered in. Alas, this is a case of “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. Unfortunately, public governance is a far more complicated business.
Often, I get the feeling that the public associates with the IAS anyone selected by the Union Public Service Commission in its massive annual recruitment exercise to the civil services. A very large part of public services are rendered by members drawn from different branches of the civil and technical services. There is also the mistaken presumption that, since the IAS mans a majority of the top-level posts in the government, it has stifled initiative in all other services and cadres. In fact, as a former middle-level functionary in the Central Government Secretariat, I can testify that most of the inputs for decision-making come from the middle levels, especially the Joint and Deputy Secretaries. A very significant number of these officers are drawn from services other than the IAS. It would also be pertinent to point out that public organisations like the banks, railways, communications and public sector units (which have also displayed sometimes glaring inefficiencies) are staffed almost entirely by technocrats or by people with domain expertise in the relevant subjects.
I am not for a moment suggesting that the IAS does not, like every other profession in the country – politicians, lawyers, doctors and engineers – have its share of “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Unflattering comparisons of the IAS are often made with its colonial predecessor, the Indian Civil Service (ICS). It is generally forgotten that the ICS operated in a completely different milieu, responsible only to their colonial masters in India and the India Office in London and without having to factor in politicians, public opinion and the media into their operating matrix. They too had to bear the brunt of Jawaharlal Nehru’s reference to them as “neither Indian, nor civil nor a service.” Even to this day, some of the best and brightest opt for a career in the IAS. That they are perceived as not having lived up to their promise can, in my opinion, be ascribed to three reasons: (a) the short tenures in most postings; (b) the failure to develop specialisation in a particular area which contributes to economic growth and development; (c) the almost automatic kick up the ladder for all and sundry, especially in the states, which leads to a number of IAS officers assuming leadership roles in departments/organisations for which they are totally unsuited.
Short tenures because of frequent transfers have been the bane of the civil services in India, but especially the IAS, probably because of their high level of interaction with issues that are the bread and butter of the political class. This is most damaging at higher levels of policy making, where continuity for a reasonable period ensures that the implementation of the policy is overseen by the same person responsible for framing the policy. Unfortunately, things seem to have worsened on this front in recent times; in the past, bureaucrats were more or less assured of a four or five year term in the Central Secretariat. Of late, Secretaries and even Joint and Deputy Secretaries have been shifted around after a year or two in a particular post. From my personal experience, I can testify that the two jobs I feel I did maximum justice to were those where I got full five year terms. It takes about two years to understand all the nuances of the job and the officer makes a productive contribution in the subsequent three years.
Even when an officer lasts her full term in a post, meaningful contributions are often impeded by the lack of specialised domain knowledge. The intention to promote specialisation in generalist administrators has remained just that; there have been no initiatives from government to bring this to actuality. Where officers acquire in-depth knowledge of a particular field in a posting, their subsequent assignments mostly have no relation to the expertise earlier acquired by them. When my five year term in the Petroleum Ministry in Delhi came to an end, oil industry insiders found it incredible that the government could invest in building up domain knowledge in an officer over five years and then casually dispense with this acquired expertise overnight.
But the biggest roadblock to building up a responsive, efficient bureaucracy (especially in the IAS) has been the tendency to hand out promotions along with the weekly rations. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in state governments, with over 95 percent of officers reaching the Apex Scale of pay. Apart from demoralising creative and hardworking officers, who find no avenues for fast-track advancement in their careers, it also leads to a glut at the top. Many posts (more correctly, sinecures) are created to accommodate average quality officers, swelling the ranks of the higher bureaucracy and promoting inefficient systems. Additionally, officers who can really make a difference to governance systems get barely two to three years at the topmost levels, hardly enough to make any visible impact.
Lest it seem that these ills plague the IAS alone, let me clarify that all the civil services in India suffer from a severe lack of professionalism. This is partly due to a lack of performance accountability while in service and partly due to moribund governance structures which do not encourage creativity and risk-taking. There is also the problem of undue political interference in personnel and purchase decisions which sap bureaucratic morale and encourage participation of the bureaucracy in institutionalised corruption. In an earlier blog (The Gadfly Column: Reconstructing the Bureaucracy: 28 February 2015), I had outlined the directions for restructuring governance systems. The issue assumes greater urgency now for two reasons. The nature of bureaucratic functioning over the last one year of the present government belies its promise of achche din, more so in the states, where “business as usual” continues merrily. Another couple of years and the present national government will move into pre-election mode, with administrative reforms taking a back seat. The second cause for urgency is the report of the Seventh Central Pay Commission, due by end-2015. Governments in the past have implemented popular recommendations while ignoring the bitter medicine prescriptions. 2015 presents a historic opportunity to recast the Indian bureaucratic system, when the carrot of improved pay packages can be dangled before the bureaucracy in return for much needed changes in governance systems. Four specific suggestions are made below:
(a) implement a five year roadmap for bureaucratic restructuring: Setting 26 January 2020 as its target date for final implementation, the Indian government should enforce, from 26 January 2018, a voluntary retirement package for its employees at all levels who joined service on or before 31 December 2000. For all those recruited on or after 1 January 2000 but before 26 January 2018, a grace period upto 26 January 2023 will apply, on which date they will leave government with their severance benefits (there will be no recruitments other than contractual appointments after 26 January 2018). All central government jobs after the target date will be on five year contractual basis. The contractual recruitment process can be commenced in January 2019, so that employees who have already quit will benefit from an “early bird incentive” to apply for contractual positions. The structure of government departments and agencies has already been discussed in the earlier blog referred to. State governments should be incentivised to go in for similar reforms; the Terms of Reference of the 15th Finance Commission should include measures to link financial devolution to improvements in governance.
(b) decentralise, decentralise, decentralise: Governance at the level of the Aam Aurat/Aadmi will improve only when decision making is pushed down to the local level. The 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendments should be given real teeth by legislating devolution of powers to urban and rural local bodies. As earlier, linking incentives, including Finance Commission devolutions, to moves in this direction would motivate state governments to support and give effect to such legislation.
(c) develop effective anti-corruption mechanisms: To bring an end to the impunity of governance systems in India, the institutions of Lokpal and Lokayuktas should be set up across India to synchronise with the changes in the bureaucracy and the decentralisation initiatives. Failure to introduce this reform will breed cynicism about the new governance structures, especially at the local government level.
(d) get government out of business: Governments should learn to mind their own business, which includes provision of basic infrastructure, creation of human capital and enforcement of the rule of law. Governments at both the central and state levels should sell off inefficient and sick enterprises and reduce their shareholding in most other enterprises. These will yield revenues for the government and reduce pressure on its financial resources. Even in the few cases where the government wishes to retain ownership of flagship public sector enterprises, management control should be fully vested in the Board of Directors of the company, with full autonomy in investment decisions and in personnel matters. Government should nominate independent directors with managerial and technical skills to serve as its representatives on these Boards. This will not only remove the irritant of bureaucratic interference in commercial decisions, but also the political doling out of favours at the cost of these enterprises. Board appointments will no longer involve the current, cumbersome procedures and investment decisions will no longer have to go through the hoop of ministerial and cabinet committees.
I wish to clarify that I have no bones to pick with the tribe of IAS-bashers — please bash on, regardless. However, I would caution that attention needs to be focused not on the symptoms but on the root causes of the disease, which lie in an anachronistic and dysfunctional governance structure. Commonwealth countries like Australia and Great Britain, from whose examples India has fashioned its civil services, have overhauled their bureaucratic systems to make them more responsive and efficient. There is also little evidence to show that undertaking such major reforms undermines a political party’s electoral prospects; free of the bureaucratic yoke, the grateful citizen may actually reward the party with a further lease of power. The ruling party at the national level can do no better than implement its Vision 2020 to give effect in the administrative sphere to the late President Kalam’s Vision for India 2020. I can only close with the following comment: those who do not wish to create history may become history.