There’s a general principle of making things like Sage and scientific advice more open. There's an obvious question about responsibility, a really fundamental question about how the British state works, about power between minister and officials, and who is actually in charge of things, and who can actually form teams...,” said Dominic Mckenzie Cummings, who served as chief adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (July 2019- November 2020), while testifying to Joint Parliamentary Committee on Covid crisis.

Somewhat similar is the situation here. Recently, the Indian government’s plan to to hire a HR consultancy firm to help it revamp the bureaucracy — as part of the ‘Mission Karmayogi’ project announced last September — was in the news. The consultant will be asked to study the organisational structures and the work allocation documents of seven key ministries or departments of the Union government.

These are Ministries of Finance (Department of Economic Affairs), Electronics & Information Technology, Rural Development, Health, NHAI, Environment and Forests, and Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). The DoPT has already floated an e-tender for hiring with a focus on moulding a “fit-for-future Civil Service”.

But can a consultant revamp the entire bureaucracy? Any structural change will require changing the entire set up, so who will take the call on this — a bureaucrat?

Rewarding merit

A section of consultants and experts see this exercise as making bureaucracy more merit oriented and challenging the extant power centres.

As Dilip Cherian, a political and policy professional, points out, “This is not the first time there has been an attempt to re-organise bureaucracy. Reforming and restructuring are not things you can do with very bright people. A better way is to let those in the service to do it themselves. The reason I say so is that if you call bidders — seniors from consulting firms will come and make a presentation and win the bid. But, when it will come to making the report, they will assign some trainees who will be getting resources. And what will then happen, will be an unhappy summarising by junior resource as a report. It will be of no help to anyone.”

Can the government afford to abolish the present system and set up a completely new one?

Former bureaucrat, TR Raghunandan, now an advisor to international development agencies, terms it as “a futile exercise and just big words. Nothing will come out of it.”

Citing Cumming’s testimony Raghunandan said, “Here is a case where an outsider who was inducted to work with the British bureaucracy testified about his experience during crisis. He did not hold back in his testimony when tough questions were asked to him. Apologising for his own grave errors, he observed that the middle bureaucracy has many outstanding people, but they were let down by their seniors. He bluntly said that in the UK politicians are incentivised to play to the media and officers are incentivised to put their head down.

“This pressure constantly pushes them away from rational behaviour. He said that the entire wiring of the national secretariat is wrong. He concluded that the default setting on everything that happens in the government ought to be transparency, and only in exceptional circumstances should it be forsaken.”

“Almost everything that he (Cumming’s) said is applicable to us. We have become a museum of outdated administrative legacies from colonial times, even as the UK has moved partially to a hire and fire system. Nothing will change in India, because there are vested interests that want everything to continue as they are. No HR consultant can understand enough to change the system.”

Raghunandan added, “Quality of young officers (civil servants) is really good and their commitment is superb. But the incentive structure in the government encourages them to either pander to politicians, or look the other way and stay out of trouble. It is a lack of a good value system crisis, not a lack of capacity crisis”.

But, Aroon Aggarwal, Managing Partner – Asia, Bradford Consultants LLP, feels this initiative of the Centre is aimed at building a merit-based and accountability-based transparent culture. “It is similar in the way a large number of Corporates map their Internal Talent. The eventual impact of this initiative could certainly lead to an overall re-orientation in the long term of the entire bureaucracy and that can be a game-changer for India, as we stand at the cusp of a major transformation,” he said.

Echoing similar thoughts is Ashissh Kaul — Associate Director, Knowledge & Advisory and Business Head – PSE Business, SHRM India, “The short answer is a big yes. The bureaucracy structure, required profile and success traits were crafted and envisaged many decades back. Life has changed significantly since then. A major challenge facing public entities today is aligning its employee strategies to serving the population objectives and driving future growth for India.”

The list of challenges could be a long, but not all will have the same impact, he said adding “Our view is to focus on some strategic challenges and ensure that they are taken care of before operational challenges are tackled.”

The first challenge is Clarity of Objectives — Lack of linkage to business outcomes that the government offices hold themselves accountable for, like better reach of services to people, transparency, speed of execution and managing quality.

The roadmap

The project should clearly find the roadmap to the way competencies are going to be used across talent management systems, Kaul said adding, “I am sure the framing of competencies is just a start and if the concerned offices do not have a roadmap to build capability in the bureaucracy, the framework will end up like a vision, mission statement in a photo frame on the wall.”

The second challenge is — Long term Sustenance: Competency frameworks are not just a one-time solution forever, he said, adding “They need to be constantly evaluated for figuring out, what is working and not working , post that appropriate changes need to be made from time to time. There has to be an ongoing ownership or accountability to support competency applications in systems.”

Vote is for change, but as Aggarwal puts it, “the biggest challenge will be the ‘Resistance to Change’ in the bureaucracy. This could lead to a huge implementation challenge of the suggestions made by the consultant. The other challenge would be the ‘Pulls and Pressures’ of various Departments during this process, making the effort extremely challenging for the Consultant.”

Interesting and exciting as the exercise may sound, but any change has to be in phased manner with a time-line.