The Narendra Modi government recently approved the National Programme for Civil Services Capacity Building, or Mission Karmayogi. The Mission sets ambitious targets for itself which are to achieve a transformed bureaucratic work culture, enhanced competency and improved state capacity. Its core offering is a new digital platform, called iGOT Karmayogi, for the delivery of training to civil servants, and a centralised institutional architecture for planning and coordination.
As the Centre launches Mission Karmayogi, it is worth taking the time and effort to engage with the history and evolution of administrative reforms in India and an extensive body of literature on human resource development to understand why and how certain interventions improve individual and organisational capacity.
At the outset, there are at least three critical tensions that this reform will have to negotiate.
First, linking training to career progression and performance is complex in practice and needs careful planning, systemic ownership and a high degree of transparency and credibility. Second, while a centralised architecture may offer coordination and standardisation, a diverse public sector workforce needs a decentralised training and learning ecosystem. And third, good training is an important facet of state capacity but is unlikely to improve service delivery or get absorbed by organisations without a concomitant effort to change organisational norms and learning culture.
The challenges of incentives–linked training
The palpable lack of interest in existing civil services training programmes has troubled administrative reform committees over the decades. Thus far, the response has been to recommend that incentives and penalties be linked to performance in training. The Yugandhar Committee made this recommendation in 2003 and the Mid-Career Training Programme (MCTP), introduced in 2007, linked career progression to the completion of training programmes. On similar lines, the current reform aims to link training with career milestones and department performance through “continuous performance analysis, data driven goal-setting and real time monitoring”, including the use of annual scorecards and rankings.
First, while the emphasis on incentives and motivation is important, previous attempts to link training to performance reveal implementation challenges. Civil servants must allocate time and get clearance to attend training, especially at locations away from their posting. Systems that don’t value training can make attendance difficult as demonstrated in practice with the MCTP. Eventually, this leads to incentive-linked training becoming a burden rather than an opportunity to learn. Here, the proposed digital ecosystem and self-learning model offered by the iGOT platform could help overcome some of these challenges through flexibility in terms of location and the availability of time. However, if adequate time for online coursework is not prioritised by the department but transferred to often already overloaded individuals, one might end up with another version of the same problem.
Second, the methodology for performance assessment must be consistent, credible and transparent. As seen in the case of other initiatives to rank and induce competition in public programmes, frequent changes in the scoring methodology provide unclear signals on whether improvement in ranks reflects better performance or the re-weighting of score components. If poorly conceived and executed, incentive-linked training runs the risk of becoming a source of demotivation in the system. Getting assessments right will become particularly important and challenging in the context of a large and diverse public service workforce.
Need a diverse and decentralised learning ecosystem
Mission Karmayogi departs from previous administrative reform initiatives by going beyond Group A and B officers to include in its ambit the 89 per cent of public service workers in Group C — many of whom serve frontline functions. This is a much-needed prioritisation. However, it is for precisely this reason that the emphasis on digital content and training, and the centralised institutional architecture of the proposed reform must be balanced by an understanding of the contexts and needs of diverse workers and learners.
While digital learning undoubtedly offers numerous possibilities, we must also consider which aspect of learning it is best suited to address. The iGOT pilot has already trained a large number of frontline medical workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. The skills imparted here are specific to a problem and moment in the careers of workers with existing fundamental knowledge of medicine and public health. Distance self-learning can build supplementary skills and update knowledge at the frontlines but may not be well suited for core knowledge development. This is a salient issue today as universities across the world grapple with blended learning during the pandemic. Feedback, a space to clarify doubts, mentorship and peer-learning are all essential for the field-based work our civil servants perform and must be prioritised.
For instance, our experience shows that rural women community health workers preferred residential training because they were empowered in the presence of their peers and were able to focus on learning while being away from their homes. While self-driven online training can work very well in some contexts, in others it may be disempowering and require further sacrifice, especially from our most constrained and vulnerable grassroots workers and volunteers.
Further, training assessment occurs most effectively at the local, organisational level. This requires precise estimation of existing knowledge, skilling requirements, and an understanding of the needs of the population being served. The new system must find ways in which departments proactively strengthen investments in training their own employees, beyond goal setting, annual plans and financial contributions, as envisioned in the current proposal. But diversity isn’t limited to departments, it is spread across states and districts. State responses to Covid-19 have taught us how decentralisation enables responsiveness, adaptability and improves outcomes. A new plan and architecture for capacity building must reflect, support and strengthen the diversity of public institutions and public service providers.
The importance of organisational culture
Finally—and most importantly—extensive research shows that individual-level technical, behavioural and professional training alone offer limited gains to performance in complex systems. Civil servants must contend with deeply embedded norms of governance, complex tasks and outcomes, overload, extensive networks of partners, and exogenous socio-political factors. Norms of hierarchy and bureaucratic processes can stifle innovation even among highly skilled workers. In short, the culture in which competence is deployed is as important as competence itself.
Shifting organisational culture towards better performance is no simple task and requires reformers to think beyond competence from the outset. While training might increase awareness, behavioural change requires that information is supported by existing organisational practices and norms. Here, organisations that foster problem-solving, participation, trust, shared professional norms, and a strong sense of mission are likely to perform much better in delivering public services. This learning culture is not created and sustained by providing better training alone or linking it to incentives and penalties, but vitally through practices of shared vision development, a commitment to learning across all levels of the organisation, purposeful work and the empowerment of employees. The collective values that Mission Karmayogi highlights require systemic engagement and change.
The authors are with the State Capacity Initiative, a new interdisciplinary research and practice programme at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) focused on addressing the challenges of the 21st century Indian state. Views are personal.