Are we headed for a leaner, narrower bureaucracy?

Richa Mishra | Updated on January 30, 2020

Slicing down the number of services may be a good idea, but could be tricky

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have done some plain-speaking with senior bureaucrats and hinted at major reforms. These are being worked out by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT). At the Council of Ministers meeting held on January 17, Modi reportedly told Secretaries that transparency coupled with technology is key to better governance and expressed his displeasure that he did not get desired feedback from bureaucrats on various issues.

Though Modi did not spell out the changes being considered, the corridors of the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, of which DoPT is a part, are buzzing with the possibility of downsizing the number of services in the country, changes in the service terms and, above all, a makeover of the DoPT itself. It could be turned into the Department of Human Resources.

Will recruitment be hit?

Already there have been changes in the way officers are judged — 360-degree appraisal, lateral entry, compulsorily retiring officers. Some of these have been ad hoc and some arbitrary, while some under the existing norms. However, no change can be implemented successfully till the DoPT works like a Department of Human Resources and changes at the State level also take place. A humongous task!

While it cannot be denied that structural reforms are required, as has been initiated by the Indian Railways, there are some critical questions. Is cutting down on the number of services or merging various subordinate services an answer? Will it not impact recruitment?

According to former Civil Servant T R Raghunandan, Advisor, Accountability Initiative, and the author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Bureaucracy But Were Afraid to Ask, “Recruitment need not come down if services are merged.” He says, “The numbers of people required is a different cup of tea as compared to the necessity for slicing services vertically into narrow groups of few people each.”

”The services have grown top-heavy over the years with the formation of too many services pursuing narrow specialisations. The lack of opportunities also leads to stagnation and therefore to keep people motivated they create more posts at the top and push people up, even though they are doing the same thing. It is also inefficient to create more services because the more there are, the more the inter se rivalries,” he adds. As he points out, “Information services and forest services are specialised services with a clear rationale for their services. On the other hand, slicing the Indian Civil Accounts Service and separating it from the audit and accounts service did not make any sense at all.”

“It was done with the specific purpose of enabling some people to remain posted in Delhi forever. The Forest Services are recruited not through the common civil services test. So they would continue I suppose,” he says.

K Ashok Vardhan Shetty, former IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor of Indian Maritime University, Chennai, believes that the decision to merge eight Group A Services, five Technical and three Non-Technical, into a single Indian Railway Management Service is supposed to end the problems of ‘departmentalism’ and ‘silo thinking’ and ensure that officers think of IR first and their Service second.

However, ‘tribalism’ is innate to human nature and it will not disappear overnight simply because the eight services get merged, he points out. “When the merger is applied retrospectively to the existing officers of the eight Group A services spread across 38 batches, the old fault lines will continue to linger for many years to come,” he says. Shetty gloomily prophesies that the merger, “is likely to provoke messy legal battles resulting in key posts remaining unfilled for long periods of time”. He feels while the restructuring of Indian Railways is important and necessary, this particular initiative is likely to produce confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation. ”Whereas engineers can be posted against the non-technical posts, non-engineers cannot be posted against technical posts. So, officers of IRTS, IRAS and IRPS who came through the relatively more competitive and more prestigious Civil Services Examination but at a slightly higher average age will be worse off in the new scenario,” Shetty says.

According to Prabir Jha, a former Civil Servant and HR leader now, “Directionally I support all the new moves of the government to reform the civil services. How so ever difficult it is, fixing inter se seniority and dilution of specialisation, it is bizzare to have so many organised civil services. Some indeed have nothing to do with mainline public service and actually have been a deception to many who served their lifetime in them.”

“More to highlight that at a time when it is more prudent to harmonise various similar functional services into fewer ones, so many Central Police forces becoming an organisational Group A service is a little surprising. Cadre reviews can still happen but each cadre to become an organised Group A service is going against the grain,” he says, adding less recruitment is not a bad thing. A leaner Group A service, but better paid, and with no guaranteed career advancement, will build more competence and delivery. The final script on Civil Services Reforms, however, will only be read after it has passed the Prime Minister’s muster. It remains to be seen how much of the organisational changes will become part of Nirmala Sitharaman’s second Budget, on February 1.

Published on January 30, 2020

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