India’s civil services: agenda for the futureThe ramifications of global changes are being felt by the government in the form of increasing citizen expectations for better governance through effective service delivery, transparency, accountability and rule of law. The civil service, as the prime constituent of government, must keep pace with the changing times in order to meet the aspirations of the people. The purpose of reform is to reorient the civil services into a dynamic, efficient and accountable apparatus for public service delivery built on the public service ethos and values of integrity, equity and neutrality.
THE HISTORY of higher civil service reforms in post-Independence period is full of half-hearted and feeble attempts. The framework of reforming civil services should be holistic and also include questions regarding integrity, competencies and accountability of the services. Any piecemeal approach, as in the past, is bound to prove futile. The Civil Services Examination Committee (Y. K. Alagh Committee) in its report submitted in 2001 observed, “………….. that recruitment, training and management of the civil services are interrelated components of the same system and one cannot succeed without the other. Any effort to rectify only one aspect to the exclusion of others will mean trying to cure the symptom rather than the disease.” 1
The paramount need of the day obviously is to take purposive action to restore confidence in national institutions and to re-establish the credibility of higher civil services. Performance alone will reverse the trend and restore faith in administration. The bureaucracy must cleanse itself, refashion its operating culture and offer convincing proof of its ability to handle situations and solve problems. Also, it has to show itself to be more sensitive, responsive and vulnerable to the changes in the socio-economic environment and to the urges and aspirations of the common masses. Instead of spending a disproportionately large part of its time in dealing with contingencies it must be alive to emerging situations and deal with unanticipated turn of events. It means that it has to be seriously taken to research in policy planning. Today, the entire area of policy making in India remains unchanged and in many sectors of national life it is difficult to say if a definite policy does exist.
In recent times, there has been accelerated changes globally, brought about by technological advances, liberalisation, greater decentralisation and social activism. A primary challenge before the government is to exploit the advantages of globalisation and international interdependence to foster economic growth while preserving sovereignty and remaining focused on economic development. The ramifications of global changes are being felt by the government in the form of increasing citizen expectations for better governance through effective service delivery, transparency, accountability and rule of law. The civil service, as the executive arm of government, must keep pace with the changing times in order to meet the aspirations of the people. The purpose of reform is also to raise the quality of public services delivered to the citizens and enhance the capacity to carry out core government functions, thereby, leading to suitable development.
The main components of civil service reforms should pertain to the following:
Civil Services Performance SystemThe present promotion system in civil service is based on time-scale and is coupled by its security of tenure. These elements in our civil service are making the dynamic civil servants complacent and many of the promotions are based upon the patronage system. The non-inclusion of incentives or disincentives for performance is a major drawback for civil services and is making Indian civil service largely unaccountable to the state.
Civil servants are not only recruited through open competitive examination, but certain officials from the state governments are also being promoted. The whole idea of All India Civil Services gets lost when other state officials are promoted to the rank of All India Services and work in the state itself. This is really a retrograde step. It should be made mandatory for the officers who are thus promoted to serve in other states to keep the idea of creating a working All India Civil Services. These promotions should be merit based and the respective authorities have to benchmark the best practices and evaluate the performance of the civil servants both qualitatively and quantitatively with a variety of parameters. The performance appraisal of civil servants has to be according to these benchmarks and the necessary placement, reward and punishments can be taken up by the authorities.
The recent reform in Hong Cong Civil Services mandated that the civil servants would be recruited on a permanent basis but their continuation in the job would be subject to assessment based on performance indicators from time-to-time. This model can be replicated in India also. There may be periodic performance reviews or audits for civil servants, especially when they turn fifty or complete a certain number of years in service.
The Surender Nath Committee rightly observed, “Given the rapidly evolving challenges of public management, the present objectives of performance appraisal need to be widened and deepened to respond to the emerging needs of governance. In this context, performance appraisal cannot serve only as a tool to assess suitability for vertical movement, but should be primarily used for the overall development of an officer, and for his placement in an area where his abilities and potential can be used to best advantage.” 2
Performance Related Incentive SchemeThe Sixth Pay Commission in its report has recommended introduction of a new performance based pecuniary benefit, over and above regular salary, for the government employees. The benefit will be called Performance Related Incentive Scheme (PRIS) and will be payable taking into account the performance of the employee during the period under consideration. It is based on the principle of differential reward for differential performance. The end objective of introducing PRIS in government is not just limited to improving employee motivation; obtaining higher productivity or output and delivering quality public service; but it seeks larger goals of effectiveness and systematic change for responsive governance. “PRIS provides an opportunity to shift from the classical command and control administrative approach with vertical and horizontal differentiation to more holistic, flexible, empowering and consultative styles of working leading to greater job satisfaction and productivity.”3 This flexible model will enable better responsiveness and performance for service delivery. The structure of PRIS allows flexibility with freedom to innovate and bring about public service delivery oriented changes in work process utilising ICT; up-scaling of best practices; with greater delegation and introduction of High Performance Work Practices (HPWP) in a budget neutral framework.
RecruitmentCivil service recruitment and promotion hinge on several factors such as patronage versus merit; the relative importance of ethnic, religious, regional and caste preferences. Even where countries adopt a merit-based system, various practices militate in favour of these biases. An explicit political dimension becomes pronounced not only at the highest level of policy and programme formulation, but also at the lowest levels of regulatory and control activities.
Such political pressures are most pronounced in countries with diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The stress on recruitment and promotion becomes severe where economic growth has not opened up job opportunities for the employable, either educated or unskilled and the government becomes the employer of the last resort. However, where economics expand, public employment tends to shed bias restrictions and even to use private sector practices to induct qualified people into the civil service. The changes in our economy create a need for specialists at various jobs. With rapidly advancing technology and high degrees of specialisation in every field, the country can no longer afford to put generalists in positions requiring specialised skills. The entry and exit of civil servants from public service to private sector and vice versa, will make the civil servants’ jobs more attractive, thus making it a new economy job. This may create the risk of competition feeding into the civil services even more insidiously than it already has. But that will at least help enforce accountability and be beneficial in the long run.
There are different opinions regarding the extent to which the civil service will benefit from the entry of outsiders. On the positive side, many maintain that lateral recruitment practices will help bring fresh ideas and skills into government, and that it will also provide incentives for current civil servants to perform better or risk being passed over for the prime postings. Yet a number of factors have to be balanced against these advantages. The response of the organised sector to the deputation of its senior management and professionals to Central and state governments is not clear. Karnataka’s Administrative Reforms Commission cautions about the need to ensure that the skills which lateral entrants are expected to bring in were not otherwise available within the civil service, which is needed to avoid the risk that the selection process becomes ad hoc and ends up demoralising existing personnel. The other sensitive issues are the offer of market related salaries and the process of selection. It is necessary to lay down an open and uniformly enforced process of eligibility criteria, selection and assessment to avoid charges of arbitrary and politically biased appointments.
The challenges confronting expanded use of lateral recruitment are important, but not decisive. The issue must be addressed carefully in a phased and systematic manner, which will allow governments to take full advantage of the benefits in terms of improved skills and motivation while mitigating against some of the costs in terms of political favouritism and demoralisation. Building a motivated and capable civil service requires merit-based and non-discriminatory recruitment, which rests on the absence of political patronage, transparent rules and procedures, open competition and selection by an independent agency. Subsequently, important elements in meritocracy and the motivation of employees are the opportunities for promotion, recognition and reward for performance, inter-sector mobility, placement in right jobs and the scope for skill upgrading and self-improvement. It is equally important to address demotivating factors like frequent and arbitrary transfers, a poor work environment, decrepit housing and health care facilities, as well as special factors affecting women in office and field jobs. Civil service does not function in vacuum; civil service reforms require a relook at the entire management of human resources in government and the incentives and disincentives facing the public service from top to bottom.
Strengthening Meritocracy in ServiceIn the final assessment, promotion – with its higher emoluments and enhanced status – remains a key element of motivation. There are differing approaches to the use of seniority and merit as criteria for promotion in countries following a similar hierarchical, ‘mandarin’ structure of civil service management. Singapore consistently promotes people entirely according to merit and it is common to see younger officers supersede more senior, but less competent, officers. Malaysia follows a system of promotion and annual salary progression based upon a new performance appraisal and remuneration system.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution has recommended the creation of a statutory body: Civil Services Board (CSB) to look into issues such as transfers and promotion of civil servants (NCRWC, 6.7.1). This will help in reducing political pressures on the careers of civil servants and better use of civil service resources. Sanjoy Bagchi observes, “The Commission must be invested with such functions that would increase professional competence and strengthen political neutrality of the IAS. There would be strong resistance from the politicians who would hate to lose their control over the service. The state governments are more likely to insist on the retention of their existing power for the sake of proper implementation of their programmes. These arguments are valid to some extent. But at the same time it has to be conceded that the overall performance of the service has reached such low depths that a change in controlling structure has become imperative…… The Commission must be entrusted with the total management of the service and it must have last word in all respects”.4
Reforming the Annual Confidential Report ProcessBecause of its impact on salary, career prospects and decisions on premature retirement, the framework for performance appraisal has important consequences for the motivation of employees. The Annual Confidence Report process is also meant to be used in training and human resource development, confirmation and crossing efficiency bars. The question of how employee performance should be systematically evaluated in a fair and reliable fashion, without generating unnecessary conflict, is a complicated one. Although supervisors have the right to provide continuous feedback and guidance to employees, Annual Confidence Reports (or ACRs) are the principal means of periodic formal appraisal. However, the non-transparent, subjective and unilateral character of ACRs in all states has reduced its utility for public agencies and alienated employees. Discussions between the evaluator and employee being evaluated are absent and typically take place only if an adverse remark is being entered. There are wide variations in the grading of civil servants between states and the linking of empanelment of civil servants to ACRs has led to a system of civil servants following up their ACRs to the level of the political masters.
Serious efforts to reform the system of performance assessment are urgently needed. The Surender Nath Committee5 was very recently tasked to recommend changes in the system of performance appraisal to ensure greater transparency, so that better performance (or its lack) is fairly and accurately reflected in the appraisal; and to ensure a more clearly defined linkage between performance appraisal, experience and skills with career advancement and placements in senior positions in governments. The Committee favours that a system of numerical grading may be introduced for evaluating the work output, the personal attributes, the functional competencies and the overall assessment. These may be done on a 1-10 scale, with one referring to the poorest grade and 10 to the highest. The Committee nevertheless considers that it would be useful to supplement the formal PAR regime with an institutionalise means of ascertaining the reputations of civil servants, consistence with our culture and ethos. Accordingly, each cadre controlling authority may, at its option, set up “Eminent Persons Group” (EPG), i.e. persons of acknowledged character and wisdom who clearly do not have any personal stakes in the civil service career in particular. Such persons (say, 5, who may serve of three years at a time on a pro-bono basis) may be drawn from retired civil servants, public figures and academics.6 The EPG (names to be kept strictly confidential) may through various means, e.g. discreet personal inquiries or more structured approaches such as personal interviews or administration of questionnaires, from a range of peers, juniors and clients, ascertain the reputation (in respect of financial and moral integrity, professional competence, attitudes and personal qualities) of each civil servant of the concerned cadre once every five year, starting from the 10th year of service. It would set out their findings in a confidential report to the concerned cadre controlling authority. This information may be compiled separately from the PAR dossier, and may be useful in the following contexts, besides others:7
Developing Specialisation / ProfessionalismWithin the civil services, there has to be a conscious move away from the generalist approach to the specialist one and upgradation of knowledge and skill should be made a lifelong process. Even if officers are recruited as generalists, they should be encouraged to specialise in one sector or the other. The core competencies of the officers should be identified and consciously developed after the initial eight to ten years of service. For encouraging development of professionalism in civil services, there should be a specific career development plan for each officer involving both core competencies as well as general leadership as they move up. The officers should be periodically sent for specialised training in one of the leading professional institutions, which should include at least a three month stint abroad, for capacity building and whenever necessary, more training be provided at the best institutions in India and abroad. The specialisation can be in the social sector, viz., social welfare, housing, environment, education, health, or it can be in the field of management of natural resources like land, water, forests, or it can be science and technology, or commerce, economics and finance, or in the areas of security of disaster management. Further, once the officers have specialised in a particular sector, they must be supported to continue in that sector.
The Civil Services Examination Review Committee8 is of the view that enhancement of professional skills and development of capabilities will enable the officers to access opportunities to spend some time, preferably even a sabbatical, in the private sector or with NGOs / cooperatives / non-profit organisations or with academia and then return to the government with new perspectives. The government should protect not only the salary but also provide some funds for the project to be undertaken during the sabbatical year. The Committee foresees a time when the existing system of managing posts by cadre officers would generally cease to exist and it would be appropriate to plant at this stage the seeds of a new and more professional system where the old rigid structures of government would change. With the advent of stronger local governments as well as community and NGOs involvement in all development programmes, the state would retreat from managing the micro economy. A well developed professional value system will also enable the civil servants to discharge their duties in a professional and objective manner without succumbing to any kind of extraneous pressures. The Committee believes that continuing education, as a process of lifelong learning will sustain such professionalism and opportunities should be provided for the same.9
Mobility for the Services and Lateral Entry of ProfessionalsIn addition to the combined examination, recruitment should also be made by other methods, especially at the level of Joint Secretary and above, e.g. lateral entry with contractual appointment and lateral entry with permanent retention. Initial lateral entry may be by way of appointment as Officer on Special Duty with limited tenure assignments. If the inductee performs very well, she / he could be offered a permanent position and five per cent vacancies could be reserved for such entrants. There should be more lateral entry, which is at present restricted only to finance and economic department and Planning Commission. In USA, there is a lateral entry system at the highest levels which is open for all. There is need for differentiated skills, which requires recruitment of specialists, to make entry open, from within and outside. When officers know they will have to compete, they will work towards accumulation of relevant professional experience. Mobility across services / between services should be explored.
Meritorious persons, even from NGOs / non-profit organisations / cooperatives, who have done well, should be taken at the middle and senior levels. A provision already exists under Rule 6 (2) (ii) of the All India Service (Cadre) rules for sending out All India Services officers to NGOs, corporations, cooperative societies, etc. It will be desirable to continue this practice not only in respect of All India Services but also for the Central Services.