A service that is losing its sheen

Richa Mishra | Updated on December 21, 2018

Why are mandarins tossed around so much even though they are the only fall-back people in times of emergencies?

“He is Babu of Babus,” a senior Minister in the government exclaimed when asked why Shaktikanta Das, a former bureaucrat, was selected as the new Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, within 24 hours of the dramatic resignation of Urjit Patel. “Das can work under any government. He follows the rule book,” the Minister added.

Well, Das’s critics may hold a different view, but being a true-blue Babu seems to have worked in his favour. In times of difficulties, it’s always the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officials who seem to be the fall-back persons of ministers.

Yet, take stock of the year gone by and bureaucracy seems to have lost its sheen. Many who are still serving have been tossed around from one ministry to another or prematurely repatriated without being given an opportunity to explain. Some have been intimidated by politicians — take the case of Delhi Chief Secretary or the shocking sentencing of former coal secretary HC Gupta.

Jawhar Sircar, a former IAS officer who has held key positions as Culture Secretary and CEO of Prasar Bharati, feels that usually working in the Centre is more systematic and impersonal than in the States. But that has changed now, with a pall of fear over the civil servants. Transfers and repatriations happen without any prior warning.

Needed, a role model

Talent expert Hemant Sharma, former HR head of Sun Microsystems, feels that bureaucracy is losing its sheen is because it is no longer an aspirational job for the brightest minds of our country. “Till the eighties, getting into the IAS was the dream of educated youths and attracted the best minds of the country. Initially, post Independence, people joined the government, driven by ideals of contributing to nation building. Later, in the 1970s, the power of these roles was a big draw,” he analyses. Today, the role models for the brightest minds are the Satya Nadellas and Sundar Pichais of the world.

In short, what civil servants today need is a role model — their own Nadella or Pichai.

To be fair, the Department of Personnel & Training (DOPT) has been attempting to introduce meritocracy in promotions, with concepts like SPARROW — Smart Performance Appraisal Report Recording Window — and a 360-degree feedback tool for officers in line to become Additional Secretaries or Secretaries. This June, it even came out with ads for lateral recruitment to senior positions in the government for 10 Department/Ministries.

ALSO READ: Lateral shift: Can it cut both ways?

Although the ad attracted 6,097 applicants, the candidates seem to have fallen short of expectations. Now the task of sifting through the applications has been given to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). On December 11, UPSC asked the candidates to fill a Detailed Application Form, the last date to submit which is January 1, 2019.

But, despite all these moves, some serious rethinking is needed when it comes to management of the bureaucracy. Sharma suggests building employer branding to attract better quality talent. “While they are called public servants, there is, however, no customer orientation or service orientation in the bureaucracy,” he says.

Most feel there needs to be greater consistency in postings and specialised expertise is much needed, particularly for the social sector. As Sircar says, “Today, unfortunately, the officers are not making use of even half of their capabilities because of fear of uncertainties which can follow them even after their retirement.”

Why the disillusionment?

Says Dhir Jhingran, Founder Director of Language and Learning Foundation, “I favour offering specialisation opportunity to interested IAS officers early in their career so they can build domain knowledge and expertise in specific areas. In this time, it has become crucial to understand domains like health, education or any other sector to be able to learn from the best practices across the world.”

Probably this is where lateral entry could work. But even as efforts are being made, why is there such widespread disillusionment within the service?

Sharma cites two reasons. “The young bright minds join the service with the desire to change things in the country, but they soon lose the motivation, given the rigid rules and regulations which prevent them from implementing out-of-the-box ideas. At a societal level, to the common man, bureaucracy is not necessarily the IAS officer but the Block Development Officer at the grass-roots level. Here, the common citizen encounters corruption at every step of government interface to get public services delivered to him/her.”

Anil Swarup, former Coal and Education Secretary, feels that “while there is transparency in performance appraisals, similar transparency is missing in selection of officers to senior-level posts. There is absence of communication between those that are responsible for selection/empanelment and those that are not considered for selection. A sincere conversation with those that are left will enable them to improve and will not lead to demoralisation.”

As former IAS officer Vivek Rae, who was also a member of the Seventh Pay Commission, says, there is need for a more rigorous system to recognise and reward merit and punish weak performance, both at the Central and State level. Automatic career progression to higher pay scales, especially through non-functional upgradation, has to stop.

And there is mixed signalling everywhere. As an in-service officer says, “When we meet the Prime Minister for meetings he calls, we all feel motivated and convinced…but…”.

It’s time the government stopped this mixed messaging and put some trust and faith in the civil servants of the country.

Editorial: Reforming bureaucracy


Published on December 19, 2018

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