* In 2009, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission submitted around 15 reports on various aspects of governance, making 1,514 recommendations
* A NITI Aayog report says there are several constraints to the development of a highly efficient, transparent and accountable civil services. These include a mismatch between positions and skill sets, and recruitment that is not competency-specific
* Experts call for reforms in state bureaucracies, too
Former British Parliamentarian and Labour Party leader Tony Benn didn’t think much of bureaucrats. “The civil service is a bit like a rusty weathercock,” Benn had famously said. “It moves with opinion then it stays where it is until another wind moves it in a different direction.”
Many in India would agree with his view. The services are everybody’s — from the politician and the media to the common man’s — favourite punching bag. There is a growing belief that civil servants, once known for their integrity and initiative, have lost their sheen. And, not surprisingly, the call for reforms in the services is growing steadily louder.
Bureaucrats counter that the campaign against babudom is an unfair one. “The service has not lost any glory. Every now and then, some disgruntled elements raise this canard. A rule-based regime in which there is universality of coverage and zero discretion will help in maximum governance,” a senior bureaucrat holds.
Since its first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been pushing for reforms in the civil services. In fact, the government’s policy think thank NITI Aayog has a chapter dedicated to the issue in a landmark 2018 report. The Strategy For New India @ 75 report stresses the need “to put in place a reformed system of recruitment, training and performance evaluation of the civil service to ensure more effective and efficient delivery of public services to achieve the development goals envisaged in New India 2022”. The government also announced on September 2 that under its MissionKarmayogi programme, civil servants would be trained to be “more creative, constructive, imaginative, innovative, proactive, professional, progressive, energetic, enabling, transparent and technology-enabled”.
As a new batch of aspirants for the civil service gets ready for the gruelling entrance process, it’s time to reopen the debate on the need for reforms. The civil services examination is a nationwide competitive examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for recruitment to various arms of the civil services, including the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS).
The government’s Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) was constituted in 2005. In 2009, the Commission submitted around 15 reports on various aspects of governance, making 1,514 recommendations. “Of these, 1,183 have been accepted by the Central government. Decisions on the accepted recommendations have been sent to the relevant Central ministries and state/Union territories, with a request to set up an institutional mechanism to monitor their implementation,” according to the NITI Aayog report. The report acknowledges that the bulk of recommendations have not yet been implemented.
There are several constraints to the development of a highly efficient, transparent and accountable civil service, says the report. These include a mismatch between positions and skill sets, and recruitment that is not competency-specific. A related issue is the opposition to lateral entry — the hiring of domain experts at senior levels. There is a need to forecast staffing needs in the civil services — and this could ideally be done on a five-year rolling basis, the report says. Attracting talent and nurturing excellence, ensuring transparency and accountability along with participatory and representative decision-making are some issues that need to be addressed.
But just who is going to bring about the changes when the onus of reforming the bureaucracy is on the bureaucrat? “The challenge of change is that those who need to change are the ones entrusted with the change,” says Mumbai-based Prabir Jha, a former civil servant and HR leader who runs a consultancy outfit called Prabir Jha People Advisory.
In the first place, Jha stresses, the allocation of services should not be based on marks obtained in the entrance exam. The top rank-holders, for instance, get their first choice of services — often opting for the IAS, the IFS or the IPS. But not everyone has the aptitude for certain services, he points out. He also warns about the creeping mediocrity in the services. “The training design has evolved but there is hardly anyone who does not ‘pass’. There is no pressure to excel once you have got in.”
Another issue is a civil servant’s secure job and almost automatic promotions. On one hand, the system means that a courageous but unpopular bureaucrat does not have to worry about losing a job. But job security gives protection to the incompetent and corrupt.
“While there are risks of abuse, there must be a more rigorous weeding out at different levels of seniority, like [it is done in] the army. The practice of in situ promotions, especially at senior levels, is a criminal waste of public money and does not even conform to contemporary job evaluation practices,” Jha stresses.
While civil servants must in a democracy finally work with the political leadership, there is merit in buffering political intrusions by creating a civil services board to deal with career matters of the services, he adds.
The focus should be on a more transparent mechanism, stresses Pankaj Bansal, co-founder and CEO of Gurugram-based PeopleStrong Technologies, a leading HR technology company. “The process even now could be robust, but since there is no agreement on the goals a position holder is accountable for, people often end up doing what they are asked to, instead of what they are supposed to do. A more transparent mechanism would need few initiatives apart from a robust process where a goal post is set up before we start measuring anyone’s performance,” he adds.
Another important factor, he says, is ‘defined accountability’. “A large segment of the delays our bureaucracy is famous for comes from the fact that there is a long hierarchical decision-making structure with no clear decision-making rights defined.”
Will lateral entry help the process? The challenge, Bansal believes, will be to maintain a balance between specialists and generalists.
“The current system is designed for developing and grooming generalist talent, which would not work so well in the new world of work we are entering into. The government, like any other enterprise in the world, needs to rehaul its talent engine to develop and groom deep-rooted specialists, who can solve issues faster in their areas of expertise,” he stresses. “Merely having specialists might not be the way ahead either. A balance needs to be maintained by identifying and deploying the best resources.”
Reforms need to be implemented in state bureaucracies, too, points out HR strategy expert Hemant Sharma, who has closely worked with the government. “It is critical to recognise the key role of state-level bureaucrats, right down to the block development officer in rural India, the ‘last mile’ face of execution of government policies.”
The attention must be on reforming the front-line executing personnel of the government, Sharma says. “Without addressing this category it may be futile to think of an overall improvement of the bureaucracy in India.”
Bansal believes that a more inclusive recruitment programme could also work, while Jha contends that the composition of the UPSC is in itself dated. “There must be inclusion of top HR leaders, more functional experts beyond mere politically connected ex-civil servants,” Jha argues.
Clearly, even before reforms for the services can be introduced, the selection process has to be dealt with. Though the recruitment process is independent, questions are often raised on the examination system and whether those with an English-medium education have an edge over candidates who have studied in Hindi or other regional languages.
“Look at the final results of this year — no Hindi-language candidate could make it to the top 200,” holds KD Singh, director, Nirman IAS, a centre in Delhi that mentors civil services aspirants. “Was no Hindi-medium candidate good enough, or is linguistic discrimination at work there?”
Aspirants taking the examination in regional languages have been suffering since 2011, Singh believes. That was when a CSAT or civil services aptitude test paper was added to the curriculum. The aptitude test was such that it mostly benefited engineering and business management students, Singh adds.
“The number of students who passed the civil services exam in Hindi and other Indian languages fell from 15 per cent [of the total in 2013] to 4-5 per cent by 2019,” he says. Till 2010, Hindi-medium candidates comprised 35-40 per cent of those selected, he adds.
The language used in the examinations, he contends, is not examinee-friendly. He cites a question paper that referred to a steel plant by its literal translation as Ispat Paudha ; Similarly, the phrase ‘surgical strike’, which has entered common parlance ever since the Army’s 2016 strike on suspected militants, was described as shalyak prahaar . Such usages, he says, confuse aspirants, who end up losing marks.
“The qualifying CSAT included in the preliminary examination should be removed. Weightage of current affairs needs to be reduced,” he says, for it has been argued that rural students do not have easy access to sources of news, and lag being urban students who have better access to the media . Candidates being interviewed in Hindi should also not be discriminated against, he adds.
That the services — and the selection systems — have to be reformed is a given. But what is stopping the government from doing so? According to Bengaluru-based TR Raghunandan, a former civil servant who is now advisor, Accountability Initiative, a research group working on transparency in governance, the government faces two challenges. “One, there is an overall lack of sincerity in bringing about the reforms. Second, there is a strong vested interest that wants to keep things as they are with all their current distortions in place.” Those with “vested interests”, he implies, would rather not usher in change that may threaten their own cushy positions.
There is nothing new about vested interests, he points out, adding that he had seen it throughout his career of 26 years in the services. “I didn’t quit because of a negative reason but felt that I had grown out of the system. The system did not encourage any quest for knowledge beyond a point,” he says.
But surely the service also gives the young challenging opportunities? “Yes, it does. But I feel that the intellectual calibre of the civil service has not kept pace with the changing demands of governance,” Raghunandan says, adding that the quality of “ethical foundation” has also been weakened. But, he also adds, civil service reform cannot be insulated from the overall decline in the bona fide nature of governance.
Perhaps change will come in when the services take into account the diverse nature of the Indian people. “We need to understand that it will be in everyone’s interest when students who pass the civil services examination consist of people of all regions, languages and genders of the country,” Singh says.
The debate carries on. But it does not greatly bother the young people who are keen on joining the civil services. For most of them, clearing the UPSC is a dream. “I am taking this exam to gain respect in society and earn a decent salary,” says Nakul Dubey (name changed), a young aspirant from Madhya Pradesh. “Besides, I will be working for society,” he says.
Famous last words, the sceptics would hold.