Is the Narendra Modi-led government missing the woods for the trees in its attempt to reform the Civil Services? While most within the government and outside agree that there is a need to reinvent the Services, they also believe that change for the sake of change is not the right approach.

The exact details of the reform plans are still not known, though there is talk of a ‘one nation, one civil service’. But there is a sense of foreboding that the ‘reforms’ might just end up creating more chaos.

Cutting flab

The NITI Aayog’s ‘Strategy for New India @75’ advocates cutting down the existing 60-plus separate Civil Services at the Central and State levels through a process of rationalisation and harmonisation.

It also suggests, “Recruits should be placed in a central talent pool, which would then allocate candidates by matching their competencies and the job description of the post.”

Concomitantly, it says, the number of exams for the Civil Services should ideally be brought down to one, with an all-India ranking.

States may also be encouraged to use this pool for recruitments. According to QH Khan, Managing Director of Dhyeya IAS, a coaching institute for Civil Services exams, there are challenges in the way the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) currently conducts the combined civil services exam. About 24 services exams are conducted altogether, and the Services are subsequently allocated recruits.

Reformatting exams

“I feel there is a need to revamp the examination process. Separate exams should be held for specific services. For example, the Railway Traffic Service requires a separate set of parameters for someone to qualify. Similarly, the Indian Forest Service preliminary exam is taken as part of the combined test, and the main is conducted separately,” says Khan.

According to the UPSC, about 1.1 million people apply for the combined Civil Services exams. Of these, about 50,000 make it through the preliminary round and then about 2,500 make it through the main. At the final interview, 1,000-odd are selected. Of course, the final selection is based on a number of requirements made by the government.

Earlier, the candidates used to share details on the States they prefer to work for, along with the Service options. Now, the State cadre allotment has been divided into different groups. For Service allocations, there is a thinking that any officer can work for any service — that is, intra-service movements. This has raised a debate. Can a police officer fit into the shoes of an administrator or a diplomat?

But talk to those studying for the exams and they don’t mostly seem to be aiming for a particular service. Twenty-eight-year-old Yashovardhan Mishra, a Civil Servant aspirant, says: “For me, what matters is cracking the exams; it doesn’t matter what Service I get into.”

The reform process

“Any tinkering with the autonomy of the UPSC in selecting candidates for different services will open the floodgates for political interference, and must be avoided at all cost,” says former IAS officer Vivek Rae.

“One nation, one service is an absurd idea, given the diversity of the country and the different roles that different services have to perform,” he further observes.

“Civil Services is a generic term which covers a wide spectrum of Group A, B and C Services, including IAS, IPS, IFoS, about 38 Central services such as Indian Foreign service, Income Tax, Customs, and Audit and Accounts. The scope of Civil Service reform therefore needs to be defined with reference to the services to be covered.”

“Each service has unique problems and challenges and all cannot be painted with the same brush,” Rae says. “The objective of the exercise needs to be spelt out clearly. Half-baked and piecemeal reforms only raise suspicion about their rationale, erode trust and undermine the morale and ethos of the Civil Services. This remedy is definitely worse than the disease.”

According to former IAS officer Jawahar Sircar, what is needed is administrative reforms by addressing the root causes and not by completely demolishing the base of the Civil Services with concepts like ‘One Nation One Civil Service.’ “Everyone wants to change the drivers not the horses,” he says ruefully.

“There is a need to look at the reforms process with a new pair of eyes,” agrees Manish Tiwari, Congress MP.

More specialists needed

Sandeep Chaudhary, President & Board Member, PeopleStrong, an HR solutions and technology company, says: “There are two immediate challenges the current system has: Mapping the right people to the right role and developing specialists. The challenge in the Civil Services is not that of quality of talent, but of deploying the right people for the right job.”

“Today, there is little alignment between education, training and deployment and that often creates issues. The current system is designed for developing and grooming generalist talent,” he says, adding this will not work well in new-age work spaces.

The government, like any other enterprise in the world, needs to rehaul its talent engine to develop and groom deep-rooted specialists, who can solve issues faster in their areas of expertise, he feels. “Lateral hiring for senior positions was a welcome move that the government made in its earlier tenure, but there is a lot more that can be done,” he sums up.