There was a news report published in The Hindu (March 27, 2019) wherein a report, published jointly by Azim Premji University and Lokniti, was quoted. In this report it was clearly brought out that the citizen of the country had greater trust in the office of the Collector (manned by the IAS officers) than even the President and the Prime Minister.

It is, therefore, evident that the IAS is not as bad as it is made out to be a select set of “urban intellectuals”, for some of whom could be a story of sour grapes. The country is certainly proud of institutions like the Election Commission and the UPSC that are primarily manned by senior civil servants. However, all is certainly not well with the senior civil service. There is enormous scope for improvement. The critical question is whether the move for lateral recruitment will bring about an improvement in the quality of governance.

Unfortunately, there has so far been no concerted or sustained effort to manage senior civil service in a comprehensive manner. The steps have been ad hoc in nature. Lateral recruitment is also one such effort. What really needs to be done is to look at the manner in which recruitment takes place, the in-service training, transfers, assessment of officers, incentives and disincentives by way of promotions and selection to critical posts.

Leadership role

However, before taking a call on these aspects, it would be essential to determine what is required in an officer who mans the senior civil service. Almost all the IAS officers occupy leadership positions right from the beginning of their careers, be it a Sub Divisional Magistrate, District Magistrate or Head of Department. Even in the Secretariat jobs, each officers has to lead a team. Hence, the objective should be to select such persons who have leadership qualities or have the potential to become leaders. The training should also centre around honing leadership skills. Perhaps this is not what is being done now.

The selection by the UPSC is above board but the entrance exams primarily selects brilliant individuals by testing written communication skills, some analytical skills and general awareness. What it tests is the examinees capability to “crack” the exam, and various coaching institutes assist them in doing so.

A leader requires much more than that. He has to be able to build a team and carry it along with him by motivating those working with him. This entails setting up examples and even a few personal sacrifices. He has to excel in communication skills beyond the written one. He has to be ethical in his behaviour with a positive attitude. None of these are tested at the time of recruitment. We have tools today to assess these and are being used in the private sector and elsewhere in the world.

The maximum age of entry into the civil service has gone up. Hence, to mould them into leaders becomes extremely difficult. They are already “hard boiled eggs”. Training assumes an important aspect in moulding these entrants into accomplished leaders. The maximum age of entry needs to be brought down to 26, as was the case a few decades ago. The training itself has to be focussed on imparting skills and attitude that would enable the officer to evolve as a leader.

Thus, more than individual activities, emphasis has to be given to group activities. It is during the training that the ethos and the purpose of the service needs to be drilled. Case studies-based methodology needs to be adopted to drive home the points. The officers have knowledge and they are capable of acquiring more of it.

What is required is the transformation of attitude as an officer, the necessity and utility of ethical behaviour. Periodic upgradation of skills and learning from each other should be the focus of in-service training. This is imperative in the context of a fast-changing world both in terms of technology and management.

There are a large number of officers who have done well in their careers. Such officers can be asked to mentor officers who enter into the service for the first few years. An institutional arrangement can be made in this regard.

The inclination and aptitude of the officer needs to be closely monitored to determine his postings and assignments. And, once assigned a task, he should be left to deliver. Frequent transfers can be extremely debilitating but seem to have become the order of the day in a number of States.

If an officer is transferred frequently, he will not be able to deliver, and responsibility cannot be fixed if he is unable to perform. This is one reason that has led to politicisation of bureaucracy. The politician is happy with it but governance suffers. Some States have experimented with Civil Services Board but it hasn’t really worked.

This will have to be given serious thought. Postings should be based on integrity and competence and not on allegiance. This can easily be done for critical posts to begin with. An agency, like the UPSC, can be assigned to prepare a panel from which the government can select an officer.

Assessment issues

Annual Confidential Roles (ACRs) were an instrument through which officers were evaluated annually and their promotions were based on these ACRs. However, consequent to the Supreme Court order, these ACRs have ceased to be confidential as they have to be communicated to the officers. This has impacted the efficacy of ACRs as no officer wants to get embroiled with an officer dissatisfied with a grade.

The 360 degree evaluation in vogue for the past few years is even worse as it is opaque and has had a demoralising effect on the civil service. Unlike the private sector, from where this concept has been borrowed, the one in practice in the government is a perfunctory one where assessment for empanelment is made on the basis of phone calls to peer group officers. No discussion is held with the officer who is being assessed and he is not even informed about the reason for not being empanelled.

There is no harm in lateral entry of officers but whether that will improve governance is a moot point. Governance will perhaps improve only if senior civil service is itself managed appropriately.

The writer is a former Union Coal and Education Secretary