Modi Magic To Turn Around The Country’s Civil Services?

Posted on November 11, 2014 in Politics, Society

By Abhishek Jha:

The Indian Administrative Service, under the Civil Services of India, is one of the most important legacies bequeathed to India by the British. Hailed by Sardar Patel for its role in keeping the unity of India intact, the service involves the most sought after jobs in India. The power, administrative clout, and dignity of class that comes with it imply that lakhs of Indians continue to fight for a seat in the IAS despite the pay-scale disparity it has with private corporations. What also comes with the halo of ‘babudom’ is immunity from prosecution.  Answerable only to the elected representatives and being their fist of executive control on the nation, the IAS is also infamous for being a corrupt bureaucratic system. With the new Modi government seeking to grow its footprint in the country by upending the sinking image of the bureaucracy, it is likely that suggestions of bureaucratic reform will be heeded.



It is reported that the Modi government is looking to give the Indian Administrative Service a makeover by allowing corporate executives and academics to compete for top posts along with serving officials. This might happen soon with the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) already working to produce a model by March 15, 2015. Since the administration body deeply affects our lives and is not directly accountable to us like the elected representatives, it is imperative that we examine this proposed reform.

Need: Poor execution of government policies is a plague that has affected India’s growth severely. Our elected representatives being accountable to us have the pressure to yield to our expectations. Despite being equally prey to inconsistencies as any other human being, their dishonesty is precluded by the power invested in the electorate to vote them out of power. These representatives, however, may not be good managers and academics. They rely on their advisers and the executive to bring their plans to fruition. These plans, being of national importance and requiring in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of the particular portfolios, require seasoned and sharp people for execution.

The IAS on the other hand has hardly any incentive for being competitive or remaining so after their selection into the service. Promotion is based on seniority and one only has to bide one’s time to move to the higher echelons of power. Article 311 of the Constitution provides that they cannot be demoted or dismissed for incompetency. Job secure and cash flowing in from under the table both from politicians for covering them and from subordinates for dispensing any business, such a person hardly has any deterrent against indolence. The title of ‘babu’, which still has the effect of a colonial master over the populace- both frightening them to subjection and inuring them to the corruption-, makes them arrogant enough to stifle any innovative, revolutionary, and progressive thought.

Unless a selected candidate decides at the very outset to challenge himself or herself to make themselves eligible for a private job after a few years of service in the IAS, the person gets mired in a vicious cycle of sloth and megalomania feeding on sycophants and powerful contacts to further one’s power and bank-balance. This makes the administrative services an institution deeply embedded with corruption with no driving force to bring it out of the abyss.

Making senior posts available only through competition thus has a two-fold benefit. One, the serving official will have an incentive for self-improvement, thus improving administration at all levels. Two, the posts being fought for will have only the most able person holding the office, and not the best from a lot whose only merit is its tenure in a corrupt system.

Here one might demand to know the difference between a privately employed graduate and an IAS officer, both being graduates in a particular field. Are they not specialists in their field? Sanjeev Sabhlok, a former IAS officer who has worked both with the Indian and Australian administrative services (the current model being drawn up takes inspiration from among others, the Australian model of bureaucracy) and the author of the book Breaking Free of Nehru: Let’s Unleash India!, points me to the fifth chapter of his book, which says:

“The producer’s interest is to master his discipline and to keep acquiring knowledge, since that knowledge will convert into profits. The bureaucrat’s interest, on the other hand, is to not undertake personal hard work or acquire knowledge. Instead, it is in his interest to delegate every possible task to others, including to ‘consultants’. A producer therefore becomes smarter over time while a bureaucrat becomes shrewd, but also very ignorant and arrogant.”

Both the corporate leader’s and the bureaucrat’s personal interests lie at odds with public interest. The only way to align their interest with the public interest is to create deterrents and incentives that will push them to work in public interest.

Outcome: Private companies already have enterprising individuals working for them to the best of their ability by creating incentives for better performance. They are paid a premium to deliver performance. To rope in these individuals, the government will have to revise the salaries for the bearer of these offices. This will immediately initiate a chain of incentive motivating the person to abhor corruption and perform instead. More will be said about the factors on which such monetary incentives must be contingent in the next section.

Now, although the recruited administrators are competent graduates in their respective fields, since promotion is based on seniority and not on merit, skill-set, or performance, often a person not proficient in a field might end up holding an office in it. This can severely hamper the functioning of that portfolio since the elected minister is heavily dependent on this person and his subordinates for framing and executing policies. When this post is opened to a pool of specialists, the efficiency of the whole system will improve to a great extent. Lateral entry given to Manmohan Singh was a great boost to Indian economy that was in dire need of reforms that were not being made due to a lack of conviction and enterprising spirit that is the bane of being a non-specialist.

It is also important to note that individuals recruited from private institutions are already hard-wired for performance when they make a lateral entry into the government job. Unlike their IAS counterparts who go blunt with years of indolent or ineffective service, they still have the skills and, hence, the option to revert to their former job. Thus they are open to hard, risky, and innovative solutions to age-old problems.

Alternatives and legitimacy: The reforms proposed, however, have a hint of the free-market theory in them that has been criticised for not accounting for the long colonial past and its impacts on the economies of LICs (low-income countries). India is already plagued with a top-down flow of ideas and orders in its society impeding progress. Empowering an individual at the top who has been ingrained with colonial ideas of suppression of the voices of its subjects may backfire. Taking Taylor’s idea of money being the sole motivator may not hold true in a country like India where sectarian politics is often enough to put representatives into power. A friend, a winner of the 2013 Berkeley Travel Fellowship Competition, who is soon to graduate, had the following apprehension:

“It may have been a welcome step in different conditions. But given who is taking it, I am afraid it is perhaps a convenient way of getting people with right wing ideologies… strong right wing ideologies… into the “bureaucracy”, which otherwise might have taken time”

This is not an unfounded apprehension.  Since the incumbent government rides high on its Hindutva rhetoric, will it replace bureaucrats currently secure about their jobs (and hence capable of disagreeing with the political leadership) with employees whose sole way of keeping the flow of incentives going would be to play sycophant to the political leader he is answerable to?

Unlike western models, we have a completely different model working in Japan with decent results. The Japanese model of bureaucracy focuses on participatory and collaborative decision making to allow ideas to flow from both top and bottom ends of the hierarchy. Quality circles bring together employers across the hierarchy to do R & D, that too outside office time. Institutionalising communal participation through company anthems and office uniforms and avoiding alienation of workers by providing loans for housing, education, etc. makes these people loyal and responsible.

The move losing its sanguine sheen, I approach Sanjeev again for feedback. His answer asks for a proper model for implementing this lateral entry idea. He says, “What I’ve outlined is an accountability based model based on the world’s best frameworks. This is also consistent with recommendations in Arthashastra. I believe there is no point in any training etc. without getting the basics right. There is a lot of useless training given to IAS etc. officers. But it is pointless. Unless you can dismiss the person for non-performance immediately and without recourse, there is no point in trying these ‘lateral’ entry ideas.” The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, according to the report cited above, does ask for a contractual appointment through competition, in which failure to perform may lead to direct termination.

The reform we see is thus much needed in an institution that lags far behind the leading institutions of its ilk across the globe. The final outcome of the reform will depend heavily on the representatives we have chosen to make this reform. Its intent so far has been good in this regard, and if properly brought to fruition we can hope for a hassle-free administrative system that makes us trust it and delivers on the government’s promise.