There is an acute staff shortage in India’s RAW with about 40 per cent of the posts at the level of joint secretaries, directors and deputy secretaries lying vacant. And then, it became worse nearly six months ago when more than 70 senior and mid-level RAW officials were marked for compulsory retirement by the Narendra Modi government. Of these, four were holding the joint secretary rank, while the rest were of the level of deputy superintendent of police or other subordinate ranks.
The whole episode calls into question the suitability of a colonial-era performance appraisal process called ACR (or Annual Confidential Report) for an intelligence-gathering organisation like the Research & Analysis Wing.
ACRs not sufficient
The decision to hand out pink slips on grounds of “non-performance” was based on a rule by the Department of Personnel Training (DoPT) that applies to all government ministries and departments. The rule specifies the conditions that count as non-performance and doubtful integrity on part of the employee as well as detailed instructions on the procedure, criteria for assessment, issue of notice when compulsory retirement is issued as a penalty. For RAW officials, their Annual Confidential Reports are considered.
The ACR is a time-worn system passed on by the British government to its colonies in the 1940s. The report is prepared once a year by a manager for each employee that s/he is responsible for. In government organisations, the next increment or promotion depends on the comments made in the report.
An ACR process requires (1) a self-appraisal from the official under review; and (2) an overall grade to be recorded (ranges from “outstanding” to “below average”) by the reporting officer and validated (or altered) by the reviewing officer. This template is used by most government departments in India and as a result, fails to capture the true nature of work. Intelligence tasks in organisations like RAW, for instance, cannot be measured using the same yardstick that is used to review the performance of those in the Ministry of Finance. The tasks and skills required to perform them lie not only on different sides of the scale, but on different scales entirely.
The generic nature of the report is not the only aspect that needs to be reformed. For purposes of maintaining operational security, ACRs in intelligence organisations are written in rather general terms. Subjectivity coupled with secrecy cloud the assessment and ACRs is often at variance with the actual work done by the official at RAW.
Another limitation of the procedure is that the audience for the report is not the official being evaluated but the agency that is making decisions. The non-participation of the official means that there is no formal channel to give feedback or set objectives. Decisions regarding retirement (or even promotions) based on a vague assessment report can raise questions about the integrity of the process. Two officials have now approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), challenging their premature dismissal from service, stating that the reason attributed to their sacking contradicts the “very good” or “excellent” ratings in their ACRs. This system ignores the impact the personal relationship the reviewer and official under review may share. As a result, both leniency and abuse of power by senior officials can go undetected.
Review the reviewing procedure
Three changes can be introduced in the performance review process in RAW to overcome these flaws of the ACR system.
First, the sections of the ACR should be designed to evaluate the intelligence official on two fundamental aspects of the job – operations and analysis. Second, two copies of the report must be generated – one with an appendix that is a detailed evaluation of the officer and is kept within the agency, and an another that can be shared with the DoPT without running the risk of disclosing confidential information. It should be the responsibility of the reviewing officer to nudge his/her subordinates who are not meeting the standards expected of them. The practice of self-appraisal can be conducted more than just once in the year and can be used to unofficially provide feedback to officers before the formal review.
The third suggestion offers a new manner of conducting reviews. In this system, an officer is personally interviewed by a committee of seniors and is given an incentive subject to their performance during the period under review. If the committee finds performance unsatisfactory, the officer is given a two-year window to improve their work before being reviewed again. If it is found that an officer has underperformed on two consecutive two-year accounts, they should be released from the agency. This would reduce the impact of subjective assessments on appointments and retirements but remain distinct from the procedure of removal due to national security reasons.
Strategic workforce planning
Billed as the largest clean-up drive since late Prime Minister Morarji Desai sacked one-quarter of the spies in1970, the current exercise of compulsory retirement is being conducted in phases.
However, it is not a simple task for any intelligence official to cut-off entirely in an instant. There are options to prevent the exposure of confidential information by retired officials. Training and mentoring new recruits can be mutually beneficial as trainees will learn from the on-field experiences of their seniors. This will also allow for the gradual distancing of retired officials from the agency. Those that are found to be incompetent can be appointed to administrative roles with minimal exposure to intelligence work before being gradually let go.
Human resource planning and management will allow RAW to go beyond the tactical ‘how do we fill this post?’ question to focus on a strategy that will result in the progress of the organisation.
The author is a Policy Analyst at the Geostrategy Programme of The Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.