New Delhi: Generalist, bureaucratic and status-quoist — these are some of the criticisms levelled at civil servants in India. The Modi government is quietly working to change this perception, through some sweeping and controversial reforms undertaken in the civil services.
A revamped foundation course for trainees, a digital platform for relevant on-the-job training, a proposed university dedicated to the training of civil servants, and deliberations on setting up a separate ministry for training — by introducing fundamental changes in all rungs of civil service officers in the country, the Modi government is seeking to radically transform governance.
While these steps have often been eclipsed by the more controversial reforms attempted by the government — lateral entry of domain experts, forced retirement of “tainted” officers, concerted attempts to break the stranglehold of the IAS, experiments with the time-tested recruitment rules of civil servants, etc — civil servants told ThePrint that the reforms in training, albeit less headline-grabbing, are expected to have long-term implications for the country’s estimated 2.5 crore civil servants from Group A, Group B and Group C.
“Over the last few years, there has been a concerted attempt to re-orient training to ensure that it becomes more futuristic, in sync with transformations in policy-making and experience, rather than theory-based,” said a senior official in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT).
“It is something that the Prime Minister has been personally invested in — to ensure that the country’s civil services shed the image of being status-quoists.”
Shift from theory to practical implementation
Soon after coming to power, the Modi government introduced an assistant secretary programme for fresh IAS recruits, wherein they would be appointed to different central government ministries for three months before they are sent off to their respective state cadres.
Through the three months, officers are required to work on projects — any new policy in their areas — and present it to their ministries on completion of the programme.
The reform, known to be a brainchild of PM Narendra Modi, was brought in to ensure officers get a hang of the nuances of policy-making at the national level from the beginning of their careers.
“That reform was the first to signal a shift in how the focus of training is changing,” said a senior IAS officer. “The government did not want officers to simply be consuming theoretical knowledge before they are sent to their cadres.”
Since then, the government has been working towards changing the course structures and curricula of the various training institutes to ensure there is a shift from theoretical knowledge to practical implementation.
Last week, ThePrint reported that the government is all set to introduce an online test for civil service recruits before they begin their foundation course (FC) — an introductory course for fresh Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS), Indian Foreign Service (IFS), Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and other recruits.
“The idea is to ensure that all the theoretical training that the officers would get during their foundation course is given online, and officers can be tested on it before they start the actual FC,” said the IAS officer quoted above. “This would ensure that the FC focuses on case studies, field and skill-based training.”
However, this shift is not limited to the foundation course alone. The officer said all levels of training — including at mid- and senior-level — will gradually undergo this change.
Online training – digitising the civil services
Crucial to this shift is the government’s emphasis on its Integrated Government Online Training (iGOT) programme — an online training module for central- and state-level civil servants launched earlier this year.
“It will take time, but what is being attempted is to create an entire digital architecture wherein there is constant training of officers that is relevant to their role,” said the DoPT official.
While the government is yet to take a final decision in the matter, it is said to be exploring the idea of linking the training of officers to their postings in various departments.
“A lot of times, training and courses had nothing to do with what officers actually did on the job,” said the IAS officer. “Since there is an increased focus on domain expertise, officers will be encouraged to undertake courses in their areas of work through iGOT.”
The government has already tied up with all its training institutes and international universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to provide online training to all government employees in governance, administration and public policy through iGOT.
Among other things, iGOT will considerably lower the cost of delivery of training since it will be digitised.
Breaking the silos, upending the hegemony
Increasingly, the Modi government has invoked the idea of “breaking silos” in the functioning of civil servants, and ensuring there is no hierarchy between the 20-plus civil services.
It is an indirect form of restructuring that the government has sought to bring in through the training of officers as well.
Last year, Modi launched Aarambh, a combined foundation course for civil servants, to ensure that members of different services are not trained at different academies.
“The idea behind a common foundation course is that officers do not develop a sense of hierarchy from the beginning of their careers,” said another official from the DoPT.
“The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy is often seen as the most premier of training institutes because IAS officers go there… Now, with all civil services going there, this perception is bound to change.”
Greater assimilation is one of the goals of iGOT as well.
“While the training so far has been good, it has been limited to a privileged few within the government,” said the official.
“At present, no more than 5,000 officers get trained in a year, while the actual number of government officers who should be getting training is 8-9 lakh,” the official added. “What this does is make 1 per cent of the bureaucracy highly trained, while the others become redundant… Mandating online training is bound to make training more easily accessible.”
The larger vision
According to officials, the reforms instituted so far are not random. They are driven by a larger vision to “revolutionise” the civil services, said the second DoPT official.
In order to streamline training reforms, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had last year asked the DoPT to explore the idea of splitting itself into two departments.
While the move has not progressed further, it signalled the PM’s emphasis on transforming training, DoPT officials said.
In the same vein, the government is now exploring a proposal to establish a National Civil Service University (NCSU) that would oversee the training of all IAS, IPS, IRS and other civil services.
“While the plan has not firmed up yet, the idea is that the university should be able to ensure that there is a common minimum standard of training followed by all national training academies,” the first DoPT official said.
The NCSU would be set up under the DoPT with training institutes such as the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, the National Academy of Direct Taxes, the National Police Academy, and the Indian Institute for Public Administration (IIPA) under its jurisdiction.
“Right now, the training institutes in Delhi, Mumbai, etc tend to have better trainers, curriculums… There is no standardisation,” the official said. “The university will ensure that the same rigour and high-order faculty resources can be instituted across the board.”
The second DoPT official said the university would also be “a breeding ground for professional trainers” who can then impart training across the academies.
“Right now, training postings are seen as a punishment… Once the university comes into being, it will ensure that there are ample number of professionals who can train other officers in public policy, governance, etc,” said the second DoPT official.
The university will ensure that there are regular training analysis, curriculum revisions, etc. undertaken by all academies to ensure that India’s civil servants remain in sync with rapid transformations in governance models, technology, etc, officials said.
“There are many changes that are being worked on, but the underlying point is that training is not an area that got much attention traditionally… It was casually remarked that the bureaucracy is unchanging and averse to growth and learning,” said the second DoPT official. “Under this government, you see a concerted attempt to change that.”