The Narendra Modi government’s lateral entry scheme is a plan to recruit “domain experts” and outsiders at the level of joint secretaries, director and deputy secretaries.
This is not to say the IAS fraternity lacks qualities needed to perform well. Despite the criticism from the urban “intellectuals”, the IAS has performed pretty well. A recent survey, conducted by the Azim Premji Foundation and Lokniti, revealed that the office of the district magistrate/collector (manned by the IAS) enjoys high credibility. India is proud of institutions like the Election Commission and the Union Public Service Commission, which are primarily manned by senior civil servants. A large number of officers are doing wonderful work in the field but that rarely becomes common knowledge. However, there is a huge scope for improvement.
There is a larger question of HR management of the civil services in the context of recruitment, induction, training, in-service training, incentives or disincentives, and promotions.
But what are we looking for in a senior civil servant? Apart from the initial couple of years, all Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers are primarily in leadership roles – whether as sub-divisional magistrate, district magistrate, head of the department or even in a secretariat. Hence, s/he is expected to be intelligent and diligent (qualities that are currently tested through the UPSC examination) but also ethical, humane, accessible, decisive, supportive, communicative and capable of motivating the team s/he heads (qualities that are presently not assessed at the time of induction).
Does the existing system select officers with leadership qualities and enable them to build upon these qualities? The answer is in the negative.
Let us look at how the attributes of good leadership can be assessed and inculcated in a senior civil servant.
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Recruitment: If officers are selected at a late stage, the chances of moulding them into leaders diminish substantially. They are, as they say, already “hard-boiled eggs”. They can’t be expected to change. The average age of recruitment has gone up in the recent past, and needs to be brought down to 26 years.
Examination: The current examination system does not test the leadership capabilities of the candidate. It tests the examinee’s ability to “crack” the exam, for which various coaching institutes are available to provide assistance. The question papers test knowledge, awareness levels, some logic and analytical capabilities. These do not necessarily make someone a good leader. Today, we have tools to assess leadership qualities of an individual and these are being used both in the private sector as well as elsewhere in the world. Moreover, the idea should not merely be about selecting brilliant individuals (as is being done now) but to select those that can deliver as part of a group.
Training: Once selected, the officer needs to be put through rigorous training to evolve as a leader. It is at this point that the ethos and the purpose of civil service need to be drilled into those selected. An individual’s brilliance is essential but what is more important is the ability to perform in a group. Group activities need to be encouraged to drive home this point. Young officers need to be mentored by senior officers, in an institutionalised arrangement.
In-service training: Periodic upgrade of skills and learning from each other should be the focus of in-service training. This is imperative in a world with fast-changing technology. Similarly, attributes and attitudes of officers need to be assessed periodically to decide upon his future postings. Thus, a person good at fieldwork need not be necessarily placed in the secretariat for a duration beyond what may be necessary for some exposure.
Transfer: Some states have been notorious for frequent transfer of officers. A transfer is not a punishment but can be debilitating and convey the wrong message. A wrongful transfer pushes the officer among unscrupulous politicians. It is difficult to correct this without political will as the politician perceives this as a tool to manipulate civil servants. Setting up the Civil Services Board hasn’t really helped. There are no easy solutions but if an officer is selected and trained properly, and is imbued with ethical values, s/he will take these transfers in his/her stride. Once politicians realise that they can’t “penalise” IAS officers with transfers, the number of such incidences will perhaps come down.
Assessment and promotion: Following the orders of the Supreme Court, all the contents in an Annual Confidential Report (ACR), including adverse comments, have to be communicated. Hence, they have lost their purpose as no officer would like to be repeatedly questioned about the grades s/he gave. Worse is the opaque 360-degree assessment system, which has been demoralising for the civil servants. They are not given any reason when they are left out of empanelment, which leaves them with little scope for improvement. The 360-degree evaluation in private sector is an intensive, interactive exercise, where the person is told why s/he has been left out. The approach towards empanelment of officers and their subsequent promotion requires a serious re-think. A lot more time needs to be spent by a peer group before coming to any conclusion as is done in sectors from where this concept of 360-degree evaluation has been borrowed.
Incentive: Selection for critical posts should be based on integrity and competence and not merely on the basis of allegiance. A panel should be prepared by an agency like the UPSC and the government can pick up a person from that panel. The Supreme Court has already issued guidelines for selection of DGPs in the states. Similar guidelines need to be evolved for other sensitive posts.
Induction of outsiders: There is a school of thought that advocates lateral induction of officers. There is nothing wrong with this per se but the process of selection would be critical. Their induction should happen only through the UPSC. Moreover, their role and tenure-related implications should be thought through. But mere lateral induction will not improve governance. Expertise can perhaps be outsourced but leadership can’t. Governance will improve only if the entire gamut of issues related to human resource management are properly addressed.
The author is a retired civil servant and former secretary in the government of India. Views are personal.
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