YOU love them, you hate them; you praise them, you decry them; but, you can neither be rid of them nor ignore them. Welcome to the universe of bureaucrats. It spans governments, corporates, banks and financial institutions the world over. They are like the framework around which is woven the fabric of administration of the entity they are a part of. Entire structure supports, feeds and, at higher echelons, executes with a view to fulfilling the objectives of the organisation. In India, the civil services man the top echelons of government, after being duly selected by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
For the aspirants to civil services, the Indian Administrative Service is the most coveted of government jobs. Despite growing fascination for highly paid corporate and multinational executive positions, IAS still commands a healthy respect. The magic letters—IAS—suffixed to the entrants’ name are no less than a passport to glory. The aspirants now include doctors, engineers and even MBA degree holders, many of with years of professional experience.
The country inherited the bureaucracy along with freedom, which was accompanied by a large number of complex problems, not the least being millions of refugees, needing shelter, security, food and water; and chaotic situation, threatening law and order. The presence of apolitical ICS and IPS with considerable experience behind them made a major difference in handling the situation. A continuum was necessary and vacuum in administration would be disastrous. Working towards the ideals that had propelled the leaders along with fervor for independence would begin in right earnest, with civil service in the forefront, thanks to Sardar Patel. The first Five Year Plan, executed largely under stewardship of the ICS/IAS, was considered a success. But, much more had to be done on every front.
New Challenges since late fifties
New goals were added, new challenges taken up. More and better quality of services were, and continue to be, demanded. Relentless growth of population put further pressure, as it meant need for more food, water, fuel, power, clothes, houses, health services, education—you name it. Provisioning for these became a herculean task, requiring solutions that were innovative. Administrator continued to be the beacon that would guide all and sundry in every field, solve problems and deliver the goods. Bureaucrat could no longer sit on his laurels. He had to be a genius, which translates into 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration. Both the traits pre-suppose commitment and efforts are made to instill them in the members of services. Apart from exposure to general principles of administration and major issues facing the country, a common thread binds them to a common ethos of espirit de corps and integrity, along with other values. Every member is expected to inculcate the spirit of service to the society and not just normative handling of issues.
THE selection process assesses the ability of civil servant to be able to look for and acquire new knowledge in wide range of subjects and use it for the benefit of people he is dealing with. But, sadly, leaves the EQ, commitment and involvement with issues, especially in social sector, untouched. Yet it must be said that these qualities are imbibed by the members of the service, a true indicator of merit and esprit.
Under fire; improving outcomes
In recent times, IAS has not lived up to its expected potential and exalted status in the public eye. The high-handed, and not always fair media, has gone hammer and tongs against the service, even coining a clearly vindictive moniker of ‘babu’. Where does the truth lie?
To say the least, the criticism is not entirely fair. To their credit, civil services as a whole have much to be proud of. The steel frame has kept the flag flying, withstood the onslaught of fissiparous tendencies and political machinations and given, by and large, a fair a clean administration. Democratic processes have been adhered to, periodical elections to Parliament and the State assemblies being further proof of it. IAS has in no way let its credo falter; if some have fallen by the wayside, let us not forget that there are exceptions to every rule. Could they have done better? Of course, biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. How can they do better should be the refrain.
First, a bit of walk in the forest of talents seeking career in civil services
Till early seventies, the majority of candidates selected for civil services were among the brightest, many of whom opted for academic careers. By mid seventies, MBA became the cynosure of bright and ‘gutsy’—as they were willing to take up careers in the ‘unsafe’ private sector. Almost as a corollary, comparatively mediocre persons started entering the portals of civil services, along with those who were still among the very best. Academic brilliance does not automatically translate into great administrative capabilities as commitment and ability to handle problems of variegated nature might.
At the same time, there is need to watch against complacency, antithetical to effective administration on account of skewed interpretation of status and belief in absolute job security.
THE most visible of various posts manned by the personnel of IAS, and one which can make significant contribution and significant difference in the last mile delivery of benefits and services, is the District Collector (DC), under whom representative of every department of the government of a State works, at least notionally. In today’s scenario, when huge amount of money is being pumped in, its full and effective utilisation would yield desired results. This obviously needs the ‘genius’ entailing hard and committed work.
While DC has to play his role in collaboration with officers of various departments, the role of departments, mostly under the charge of senior IAS officers, is no less important. District experience imparts better understanding of issues at the grassroots, provided DC has worked with peoples’ welfare at heart. This experience also comes in handy at central level, where pooled knowledge from different parts of the country helps the fomulation of appropriate policies. With the government embracing practically all aspects of life, inter-dependence of departments necessitates mutual cooperation, understanding of the concerns of one another and jointly working out optimum approach to satisfactorily resolve issues involved.
In earlier days, acute shortage of money often starved even critical works. Works and services requiring larger outlays would suffer, especially in outlying and remote areas. Recently, with better availability of funds, more flexibility in their utilisation and technological developments, expectations of better performance from bureaucrats on the tap have risen. Added to these are the special funding mechanisms, such as legislator’s allocations, special area funds, which permit no excuse to DCs in alleviating hardships faced by the people.
Areas needing attention
Bureaucracy in general and IAS in particular have to change their ethos considerably, leading to a major paradigm shift. With their skills as administrators, knowledge of grassroots acquired in field and commitment and their ability to handle multiple tasks gives them an edge. But even being the best does not make them omniscient. There will a rise in situations where out-of-box solutions will be required. Besides, they must keep themselves ahead and not just abreast of problems, likely bottlenecks and hurdles and think of innovative solutions. Taking lead from successful experiments elsewhere and tweaking them to suit their own purpose could be of immense help, provided they know where to look!
Lessons can be learnt from Armed Forces, where officers’ conduct is being watched closely by seniors as well as colleagues. Competition is severe, tasks enormous. The system is required to provide guidance to the officers. Confidential reports are not entirely mechanical and except for some special aspects, the officer reported on is shown the remarks of Reporting Officer (RO), which includes points of guidance that in his view are needed to improve the performance of the officer. This is not supposed to be a criticism, but constructive guidance. The omniscient IAS on the other hand (swayamguru) is left alone to his devices and mentoring, which can be of immense help, is not a part of ACR writing.
There may be resistance on the plea that the IAS officers are required to be independent and that they have the ability to scout for alternative approaches and solutions, new techniques and technologies and getting a peek into systems in use elsewhere. In the chaotic everyday life, it is not always easy to do serious academic study. Officers are sent for sabbatical, giving them opportunity to catch up on knowledge, share experiences and broaden their vision. Mid-career training programmes are also conducted, but with all that, it may not always be possible to spot and apply effective solutions to complex problems that are bound to arise. Various long and short courses are utilised to familiarise officers with management techniques and tools, which can be made good use of. Need for constant evaluation and adjustments to stay relevant to changing scenario can hardly be over-emphasised.
The top bureaucracy can itself design programmes that will help building scenarios, gauge the impact of intended schemes, create steeplechase courses and figure out the winning strategy. With computer technology making multi-sectoral models, tremendous muscle can be added to the mighty government machine. Domain experts, academia and researchers can render valuable input. It would be still better if stakeholders are involved in such exercises and some major schemes.
Dilution and lateral entry
Lately, talk of lateral entry and confusing signals further compounded by political innuendos have been doing rounds. Civil service is based on meritocracy and esprit de corps inculcated at the very beginning of the career. This was ensured by selection of the best based on a common examination and a common interview, and by selecting the very best (the top 100 are so) to the IAS. While a few civil servants might, in the course of their long career, have turned stooges of the ruling party, at the time of recruitment they are totally objective, capable and fair. The meritocratic service has been diluted to an extent, by introducing a promotion quota for the State civil service officers, without any written examination, merely on the basis of an interview. While earlier only the state PCS officers were inducted in this manner, as they too have experience in managing some diverse portfolios and field experience in managing sub-divisions etc., for several years now, officers from almost all departments have become eligible to get inducted into IAS (NOT IPS/ or IFoS!).
WHAT is objectionable is not the induction of State service officers into the IAS, but the process of induction, which led to many blue-eyed boys of the State political bosses into the top administrative service. Having worked for most part of their official life in a particular State, these officers are also amenable to local pressures and pulls, including caste affiliations. The second step in diluting the merit, experience and the ethos of the IAS is induction of various central service officers, even from services like Indian postal service, military lands and cantonment services, accounts services and railway services into policy-making jobs like in Home, Defence and Finance, and also into agriculture, health, food etc., making a hash of good policy-making. Here again, what is objectionable is not the induction of a competent person from these central services, but the way in which they are inducted. Quite often one notices that the first entry these worthies make is into posts of Additional PS or PS to a Minister, based on their equation with the minister concerned.
The next step in dilution of the ethos of the IAS is the lateral induction of so called technocrats. With fast-developing technologies, we may need to tap their potential through domain experts who can be brought in for that specific objective. That means that once (s)he has outlived his utility, (s)he must make way for the next generation expert or be able to handle the new developments. Here again there are no set procedures and processes to pick up competent science managers and technology managers. It depends on the whim and fancy of the minister concerned. It is paradoxical that after doing all this damage to the top civil service by destroying the very concept of meritocracy, the politicians responsible for it, complain about falling standards of the IAS.
One would like to conclude with a pious hope that the services, especially the IAS, are treated as partners in progress and given even-handed treatment.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer)