In Digital India, even transfers and postings of bureaucrats may happen online. The National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, is reportedly developing a portal to manage the movements of bureaucrats.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it seems, wants a system whereby he can directly track who is posted where, who is retiring when, and who can refill the position. The PM is said to be hands-on and tech-savvy. Hence, the development shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But it does raise some questions. While on the one hand it will create greater transparency, on the other hand it raises question about the existing system of appointments.

Currently, the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) decides appointments to several top posts under the government. The committee comprises the Prime Minister (who is the Chairman) and the Minister of Home Affairs.

This is based on the names short-listed and forwarded to the Cabinet Committee by a team comprising mainly bureaucrats.

Other issues in spotlight

The move to create a portal also raises other questions. Does the PM have time to monitor individual postings and movements? Is it because there is lack of trust?

Incidentally, NITI Aayog in its report ‘Strategy for New India @75’ on the subject of governance has noted “Human Resource Management needs to be a strategic function in the government. It should be implemented through a unified single online platform that covers employees from the time they are hired to when they leave service. Such a portal would incorporate all HR related requirements such as performance appraisal, training, leave and disciplinary proceedings. It could also facilitate Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) style capacity building for government employees.”

Former IAS officer Vivek Rae questions the need for such a portal. “The rationale for the digital portal to monitor appointments is not clear,” he says. “Executive record sheets and ACR (annual confidential reports) gradation charts are already available online for Department of Personnel, Cabinet Secretariat and PMO. It is the responsibility of Establishment Officer and Cabinet Secretary to find the right officer for the right job and make proposals to ACC with three options,” he says.

In fact, Naresh Chandra, former Cabinet Secretary, is reported to have said that finding the right officers for key jobs was his most important responsibility, Rae points out.

“Extreme centralisation of this function will be counterproductive. Digital systems can aid decision making, but cannot substitute for value judgements and subjectivity while assessing the performance of human beings,” he says.

However, Prabir Jha, a former Civil Servant and HR consultant, feels that we must see the spirit of this intent.

“Greater transparency, more real time traction is all about better norms of governance. That is what must be celebrated rather than the letter of the PM personally monitoring,” he says.

Jha agrees that the civil services need to be reformed to deliver value to a contemporary society.

“Our system is stretched the least and outdated at its worst,” he says.

Jawhar Sircar, Former Secretary in Government of India, feels that “subjectivity in the current appraisal system for civil servants has to go.”

He says, while integrity should be the key criterion, each of other notes and comments made by the superior should also be accompanied by a numeric 1 to 10 scale.

“This will help convert the whole exercise to completely non-subjective data, instead of leaving this task of apportioning marks on the basis of ACRs to Assistants and SOs as now. Even the 360 degree assessment must be recorded transparently somewhere — so that it can be used under the Evidence Act,” he says.

How about secret polls?

Sircar suggests an out-of-the-box system — like conducting secret polls in each office annually, on two separate issues — sexual misconduct and lack of integrity. “Give each employee the full list of names of his/her own colleagues — roughly 25 officials can be covered in each poll. Employees can just tick those names that they know to be sexual predators or corrupt. No one knows this better than close colleagues. Build up employee-wise confidential database on these two issues over a period of time,” he suggests.

According to Jha, “The ACRs are not always annual in the true sense, nor Confidential, nor even an adequate record. The world has moved beyond annual appraisals.”

Appraisal, even with its recent tweaks on points, needs to be thought through as an absolutely new practice in the civil service, he says, adding “Otherwise incremental changes will neither bring efficiency nor effectiveness to higher levels of performance accountability.”

Jha feels a drastic overhaul is needed, and criticises the civil servants for becoming too pliable. “Many have merely surrendered to self-interest. And more than the political executive, growing servility on the part of civil servants has weakened the service. They need to rise to the occasion and show spine and spunk if truly the civil services have to get their legitimate spine back,” he adds.

The question is: will a portal be able to trigger all these reforms?