Modi’s new acid test for bureaucrats

Richa Mishra | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 24, 2017

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Will the corporate-style 360-degree feedback tool work in evaluating civil servants?

It was a wake-up call for several bureaucrats in Delhi last year when they failed to make the cut as additional secretaries, just a rung below the coveted post of a secretary at the Centre.

The reason: the Narendra Modi government’s newly introduced 360-degree feedback tool for officers on the threshold of becoming Additional Secretaries or Secretaries. Till then, empanelment committees would select civil servants for top jobs based on their annual progress reports or confidentiality reports. These reports were generated by just one person: the immediate boss of the officer under review.

Last year, the government broke away from tradition and adopted the 360-degree feedback mechanism as a tool for elevation. It caused quite a stir; no longer would the bosses' view alone matter.

As former IAS officer, Vivek Rae, who was also a member of the Seventh Pay Commission, says, “Earlier, what mattered was what your boss thought about you; now, it also matters what your subordinates think of you and the stakeholders. This will bring in behavioural changes and enable better assessment of each officer.”

Talent expert Hemant Sharma, former HR head of Sun Microsystems, admits to being surprised that the bureaucracy is using this new tool for career review. "It is a developmental tool and not necessarily an evaluating tool. Whatever output comes out of 360 is used for the purpose of development," he says.

That said, however, he appreciates the fact that the government has incorporated client or stakeholder feedback as well into the review process. Usually, under 360-degree feedback, only the views of managers, peers, and subordinates are taken, points out Sharma, who is currently working with Anode Governance Labs on enabling capacity of local governance institutions like panchayats.

Feedback matters

Rae feels that the current mechanism is loosely structured, but reckons that with time it will be tightened up. “In the next few months you will also see some more guidelines come out. Every year, a committee of secretaries draws up a list (of candidates) based on annual progress reports; now they do a 360-degree review and make a list. It’s possible that some who have always had very good reports may not make it, and some who may not have had good reports may make it based on feedback,” he said.

To address this, Rae describes how a review panel was set up last year so that people who were left out could be assessed again. “This was to ensure that no injustice is done. Many did not get through because of bad feedback,” he added.

Jawhar Sircar, a former IAS officer who has held key positions as Secretary at the Centre including as Culture Secretary and CEO of Prasar Bharati, feels the new evaluation system is more objective. He says, It’s a good thing. Earlier, we had a routine system of sending annual report where points were given. It was highly subjective.”

Sircar points out that under the new method, the base of assessments has expanded. “People who till now used to please their bosses or relied on the caste factor to get in now have to also perform,” he reasons.

Interestingly, the new feedback mechanism also lays high emphasis on integrity and honesty, which the Modi government felt had been compromised. As Sircar says, “Once you get in, you will be on a performance watch and an integrity watch. There are four components of integrity: moral, financial, political (not associated with any party) and intellectual honesty.”

Altough Sircar feels the new system is better, he says the grey areas need to be addressed. “There must be a system of doing away with aberrations,” he says.

Less than optimal

According to Rae, one of the grey areas could be who the evaluators or reviewers will be. “Ideally, the 360-degree feedback should take in the views of three bosses, three juniors, three peers, and three outside stakeholders.”

For instance, if a joint secretary in, say, the petroleum ministry is being assessed, the views of oil companies, who are stakeholders, should be incorporated as well. In fact, more of the focus should be on subordinates and stakeholders, he says, adding that “this needs to be systemised.’

Sharma warns against potential pitfalls such as skewed reviews. “If someone comes to know that my boss will be evaluated on my feedback, it empowers the disgruntled subordinate. Typically, in a performance management system, the key performance indicators should be given a certain weightage, much the same way as competency and skills are.”

A more constructive way of using the 360-degree tool, Sharma feels, is to use the feedback received for development. “They also need to ensure that the 360-degree feedback tool is not used as a punitive measure, but more as a development measure.”

Published on May 24, 2017

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