Civil services need reality check!
One of the first initiatives of the new prime minister was to convene a meeting of senior civil servants and interact with them. The idea was to assuage their fears and give directions about the new government’s priorities. What emerged out of the meeting has been widely discussed in the press and needs no repetition. The newspapers are full of stories about several secretaries taking rounds of their ministries to check on attendance of employees as well as cleanliness of surroundings. This in itself is a pointer to the way the senior civil servants have been functioning. Does it require a direction from the prime minister to ensure that rooms are kept clean, old files weeded out and punctuality enforced? Were our secretaries constrained by the CBI or the CAG in performance of such basic duties? It is time someone admonished our secretaries for not performing their essential functions.
To transform our civil service to a performing civil service the new government must address the basic malaise that has crept into the system over the years. The civil service, particularly the IAS, has become a victim of a strong coterie of self- serving individuals which works to garner benefits for itself. This would be clear if the government was to review the length of postings in Delhi of several of our ‘distinguished civil servants’. Many of them have barely spent four to five years in the cadres in which they are borne. It would be an interesting exercise to note how extension after extension are granted for continuance of such officers when the rules provide for repatriation to the cadre after a fixed tenure. It was indeed amusing to learn that one of the issues raised by the secretaries in their interaction with the PM was to restore the primacy of the ACC appointment system.
There were some excellent traditions in the Central Secretariat which were designed towards professionalism. Such arrangements were distinctly superior to the arrangements in many of the state governments. The basic structure was to ensure availability of expertise required for formulation and implementation of policy. The Central Staffing Scheme drew on the talent pool available in the entire civil services and officers from various civil services were selected on merit to man positions in the Central Secretariat as deputy secretary/joint secretary/additional secretary and secretaries. There was a sprinkling of officers from all services which provided an excellent interdisciplinary pool. Over the years, this wonderful frame work has been diluted to make the Central Secretariat the preserve of only the IAS at the senior levels. This has resulted in the system being deprived of the services of meritorious officers with varied experience and perspective from other services. It has also encouraged the unholy nexus between the IAS and politicians to further their own self interest.
Similarly, transfers in the Central Secretariat were unheard of till the 90s. Officers were posted to a ministry and worked in the same ministry till they completed their tenure. Now a days officers posted in the less glamorous ministries are forever jockeying for shifting to more glamorous ministries. Secretaries who have tenures of less than three years are often transferred after about one year to another ministry. All this has opened up the system to manipulation, much to the neglect of professionalism. It is time we restored the old frame work and provided opportunity to meritorious officers of all services. If the IAS is to retain its leadership amongst the civil services it must learn to give rather than grab everything that comes its way. It is encouraging to note that the prime minister has decided not to induct anyone as minister who is above 75. He needs also to decide that no appointment in any form be made of a retired civil servant. Such appointments are playing havoc with the system.
The civil service must also ponder over its inability to reign in the so called ‘rogue elements, the rotten apples’. It is not enough for the Secretary to be honest; he has to ensure that officers working under him are also honest. If a secretary fails in reigning in his additional secretary/joint secretary/director he is not only negligent but also culpable in discharge of his duties. In the old days one of the foremost tasks of senior civil servants was to mentor their juniors. This has been lost over the years. It is time we brought it back.
Over the years we have built strong oversight mechanism which now threatens to engulf the system. This may be replaced by a much simpler mechanism of quantifying the outputs for each official with strict time limits of disposal. This would ensure efficiency. Similarly the surveillance mechanism to watch over the wealth of an officer should be strengthened.
Officers must account for their wealth at regular intervals. We must stop looking at the decision making process and instead concentrate on wealth creation by officers. Once such a mechanism is in place, the honest officers would be proactive and find more out of box solutions to issues that plague the system without having to bother about the consequences.
We have over the years neglected the middle and junior levels of the civil services. All our discussions about the civil services centre around the higher civil services comprising the IAS, IPS and the central services. The other civil servants constitute the largest chunk and are at the cutting edge of service delivery. Their motivation levels are at the lowest levels, largely on account of neglect and injustice meted out to them by the higher civil service. We must address their legitimate aspirations and provide a channel where the meritorious amongst them are inducted into the higher civil service. Unless this is addressed all talk about civil service reforms would be an academic exercise.
It may be desirable to consult the CAG during policy formulation and his advice sought on contentious issues. The CAGs must reorient his functioning to providing advice on what is the correct course of action at the beginning rather than a post mortem advice on what should have been done to prevent the death. CBI should be made more professional by inducting officers who have worked in finance, law and investigation arms of revenue and customs. Domain expertise is required to understand complex issues that are required to be examined during investigation of the decisions taken. It will be a great challenge to a police officer to cope with such complex issues. The powers of arrest should be used in the rarest of rare cases where there is strong evidence of a person fleeing the country. The power of arrest is being abused to the serious detriment of morale in the civil services.
These are a few quick suggestions that would go a long away in addressing the issues that bother the prime minister and the citizens.
The author is former coal secretary