Bringing up Officers

Saturday September 29, 02:20 AM
Recently many secretary-level officers of the government of India had to attend a four-week training programme organised by IIM Ahmedabad in collaboration with the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. The entire 1991 batch of IAS officers was made to attend the training programme at the Administration Academy (no families or leave of absence allowed) at Mussoorie including a training visit to the US. This was the first time in the history of the civil service that an entire batch of mid-level officers were made to undergo training simultaneously. The induction training curriculum at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie too has been changed substantially following recommendations made by the R. Vaidyanatha Ayyar committee. It now includes, inter alia, attachment with an NGO, greater knowledge about functioning of industries and businesses and greater sensitivity to the processes of history, politics and globalisation.

Some new things are happening in the civil service. Three major reform committees have been set up by the government of India in the recent past on the subject of civil service reform. Two were charged with suggesting improvements to the curriculum of training for IAS officers while the third was to suggest broad reforms to the civil service. Many of the recommendations made by these committees are already under implementation. These reports highlight a core concern in officialdom that the civil service at present is seen to be corrupt, arrogant and unresponsive to the needs of society and that citizens are being shortchanged by administrators who are not doing all that they could and should.

Actually, some of the harshest criticism of the civil service comes from within the ranks. N.C. Saxena, one time director of the LBSNAA, has this to say about civil servants, "Bright men and women join the civil services, but adverse work environment, constant political interference, meaningless transfers, and corruption below and above them all leads to the death of idealism, and encourages them too to misuse of authority... An important factor which contributes to the surrender of senior officers before political masters is the total lack of any market value and lack of alternative employment potential. Beyond government they have no future, because their talents are so few. Most IAS officers thus end up as dead wood within a few years of joining the service and their genius lies only in manipulation and jockeying for positions within government."

The analysis in the other reform reports is more or less in line with the above assessment and many of their recommendations are very apt. But invariably they have looked at the problem of the civil service's failure to deliver from the standpoint of the personal ability of the civil servant - as if the institutional set-up is immaterial.

An underlying implication of such a perspective is that if somehow the competence of the civil servant could be improved, if his mentality could be changed, if corruption could be addressed, then governance in India would be transformed. The wish list of reforms that follows is headed by recommendations concerning fixity of tenure, freedom from political interference and power to transfer being vested only among civil servants. What has not been talked about is the need for IAS officers to deliver on projects, which is what is lacking at present. The institutional lacunae remain.

The Hota Report concedes the problem. "We are... aware that reforming the higher civil service is no substitute for reforming governmental processes and administrative structures. When citizen interface is substantially with the junior functionaries of government, there are obvious limits to achieving citizen-centric governance through reforms of higher civil service alone. Nevertheless, it is our hope that the principles emphasised in our Report will be taken to the cutting edge level. To ensure citizen-centric governance, many of the recommendations of our Report have gone beyond the higher civil service and touched upon the basic structures of the governmental machinery."

Most of these recommendations, however, are prescriptive in nature. They give directions to various government departments to be good: be more responsive, transparent and citizen friendly. This is much in line with the prevalent brahminical mode of thought wherein giving advice is deemed to be a superior thing to actually doing things. Little wonder that such advice is routinely ignored by the line departments.

At present, all these officers, including the IAS, are assessed on the basis of their ability to meet budgetary norms of expenditure. Anyone can spend money: the point is to do something concrete and to complete a project. Perhaps the basic reform that is needed is for the IAS officers to be made project leaders, sharply focussed on one particular project: 'your task is to do this project in a predefined time'. Once such a project-based approach is followed in the civil service it would go a long way to ensure that the civil servants focus on achieving results rather than enumerating the obstacles that lie in the way of achieving results. Skill upgradation or even moral upliftment in the absence of pressure to deliver, cannot hope to achieve much.

The writer teaches contemporary history at Panjab University, Chandigarh and lectures at the LBSNAA Mussoorie. He provided inputs to the Ayyar committee.

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