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Cover Story

Cover Story : Unusual times for civil services

Instead of thinking about how to get its prime social position back, the civil service officers should focus on how to serve the people more honestly, efficiently and sensitively


OF late, a number of civil servants in central ministries are feeling dispirited because of the allegedly overbearing attitude of the Prime Minister’s Office not according them the importance they had enjoyed in the previous dispensation. They say that the constitutional and statutory systems have been given a go by in the present regime. Institutions are not required to perform their time honoured function and there is virtually nothing left for the many ministry officials to do except wait for directions from the PMO, which seems to be micromanaging everything.

The latest discontent of a large section of officers in the Central ministries is that the bureaucracy has largely been rendered redundant in the present regime. There is hardly any worthwhile work being handled in the ministries. Ministers are scared of taking initiative, lest it may be resented by the PMO. The decisions are handed down from the PMO to be religiously followed by the rank and file of the government. Joint secretaries, who have traditionally been regarded as the pivotal link in the decision chain, have been reduced to being mere desk officers. They come to the office punctually (owing to the biometric attendance recording system), but have very little to do except drinking coffee and gossiping. Resultantly, All India Service officers have stopped making a beeline to the Centre at every level.

It will be erroneous to blame the PMO of upsetting the procedural integrity of Westminster system of governance if the new mode of decision making serves the overarching objective of development and welfare of people

They quote that the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet no longer deliberates on high level appointments as each assignment is decided by the Prime Minister, whose decision is post-facto communicated to the other members of the Committee. According to them, the traditional system of cabinet proposals being formulated with the approval of the minister has been replaced by prior concurrence of the PMO in important policy matters. Even the Committee of Secretaries has lost its deliberative effectiveness to a great extent.

The national association of a higher civil service recently submitted a representation to the Prime Minister, saying that the promotion of their members was being unduly delayed despite there being vacancies. They also made a strange demand—their administration should be taken out of the purview of the ministry since theirs was an autonomous service. It is learnt that a mutually acceptable settlement has since been reached with them.

For the first time in several decades, the officers of All India Services were not too keen to come on deputation to the Government of India, unlike the past when they used to pull out all stops for every joint secretary’s post. We are witnessing a new practice of joint secretaries and additional secretaries being routinely shifted from one ministry to the other in the middle of their stipulated tenures.

IT is learnt that the government is coming out with a 15-year vision document in the next couple of weeks (perhaps coinciding with the Independence Day), based on which the strategy for country’s future development will be shaped. Bureaucrats in several ministries say that they are totally in the dark about the unfolding vision, which is being worked out in Niti Aayog.

Is something unusual happening to the Central bureaucracy? Was the bureaucracy more comfortable during UPA regime than in the present NDA regime?

Senior leaders of the opposition allege that the PM is running a de facto presidential form of government and that all powers are concentrated in one office with ministers ‘reduced to the size of postage stamps’.

The national association of a higher civil service recently submitted a representation to the Prime Minister, saying that the promotion of their members was being unduly delayed despite there being vacancies

On the flip side is the argument that it is imperative to have a strong Prime Minister’s Office for ensuring cohesive and composite decision making process for effective and accountable governance. Also, when there are gigantic problems on all fronts, it is better to deal with them through a powerful entity capable of ensuring steadfast, unfaltering compliance. This has been adequately demonstrated by the astounding performance of Prime Minister’s MUDRA Yojana in a very short time.

It is true that multi-level hierarchical decision making, modeled to maximise the total output of the government, has almost disappeared. It has been replaced by an integrated decision making process. We are not making any value judgment because it is yet to be decided which is better for the people and the country. In fact, it is argued that when the government has become more focused, it is accused of being dictatorial and arbitrary. The nation was craving for action after ten years of policy stagnation and fragmented coalition decision-making. The emerging prototype of decision making introduced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not be palatable to many of our senior bureaucrats. But modalities and procedures, in my view, should not be allowed to override outcomes as the ultimate test of the effectiveness of the government. I think it will be erroneous to blame the PMO of upsetting the procedural integrity of Westminster system of governance if the new mode of decision making serves the overarching objective of development and welfare of people.


Should these issues impacting on the role of the civil service be debated within the bureaucracy, think tanks and in academic circles? Should the civil servants utilise this interregnum of tranquillity to look inside and reflect on their future role?

The civil servants should ask themselves as to what bothers them most; what are their priorities in life and work. In what I have seen during my time in bureaucracy, the universe of a typical civil servant generally revolves round his career and his family with not as much awareness of the people he is supposed to serve. Why has he not been posted to a coveted position like some of his ‘batchmates’; what is the political clout of his junior colleague to be sent abroad for training or on a foreign posting; why is he being victimised for a minor error while big fish are not touched, etc? Later in the service, he flies into rage if he is not ‘empanelled’, or if he is overlooked for an important assignment despite his perfect entitlement for it. And, finally, when he completes his stipulated innings with the government, he complains about not being rewarded with a post-retirement sinecure job like membership of UPSC or Election Commission. Added to these grievances is the panicky feeling that ‘other services’ may be gaining on his ‘service’ or his ‘service’ being discriminated against by the government.

And who is the ‘government’? According to our civil servant, the government is something distant and impersonal that decides everything, including his fate. In fact, it dawned upon me for the first time when I became a Joint Secretary that I was also a part of the government.

I have said elsewhere that my generation of civil services committed several mistakes in the past. And the same mistakes are being repeated by successive generations. The civil service has never paused to reflect on these mistakes and the ways to correct them.

Of late, a slow process of introspection is discernible in the senior ranks of the civil service. Some of its members are deliberating on why citizens show a total disappointment with civil servants. A thinking senior officer says, “The service as a whole must redeem itself. As far as brilliance is concerned, the service is replete with it. Those who are entering now are extremely talented, well informed and supremely exposed to the changes all around.” According to another, “We have to get our act together highlighting good work of fellow officers; we also need to introspect, seriously whether we are making compromises to get assignments while in service and for assignments after service? Does it not make our position very weak?”

INSTEAD of thinking about how to get our prime social position back, we should focus on how to serve the people more honestly, efficiently and sensitively. We should be thinking on how to introduce more ethical content in our day-to-day working. Leaders in bureaucracy should think big; bigger than themselves, bigger than clans and factions.

Band aids will not suffice to enhance the face of civil service in the eyes of the people who are the final arbiter of the worth of civil service. Needless to say, if the service does not satisfy the people, it should be overhauled or changed. Fortunately, things have not yet gone out of hand. The Indian civil service can still be reclaimed.

Endpoint: Introspection is essential, but we should enter the hall of introspection leaving our egos at the door. Regrettably, we are not made that way.

The writer was the Cabinet Secretary and the first Governor of Jharkhand. He can be reached at pkumar1511@hotmail.com

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