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Modi govt’s proposal to change how service & cadre are allocated to civil servants – a good idea?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office has proposed that services and cadres should be allocated after civil services entrants complete their three-month foundation course. At present, both are allocated on the basis of rank in the All India Civil Services Examination.

ThePrint asks: Modi govt’s proposal to change how service & cadre are allocated to civil servants – a good idea?

UPSC tests rote learning. If revamp can improve system, let’s explore it

Padamvir Singh
Former director, LBSNAA, and former IAS officer (Madhya Pradesh cadre), batch 1977

UPSC is an exam where selection often happens on the basis of chance. They test rote learning. It’s not like the best candidate is always picked. There are constraints about selecting and eliminating.

The proposal by the PMO is not wrong. It is not a bad idea at all. Making a final merit list on the basis of the UPSC exam and the academy’s assessment in the first few months is actually a step in the right direction. This idea has been around for a long time.

Individual discretion is part of human life. Moreover, the assessment in Mussoorie is holistic. They test not just learning, but also a variety of extracurricular performances. They provide the selected candidates with the exposure needed to be a civil servant. Unlike UPSC, which is about mugging up, Mussoorie tests the candidate’s abilities.

The system is incredibly comprehensive and hence rules out the possibility of bias. It is fairer than the UPSC where one rank determines the rest of your career. Sometimes people have latent capabilities which become evident after they join the academy.

There is no direct correlation between doing well in the exam and at the academy.

My only concern is that the move shouldn’t happen by diktat. The PMO must take into account everyone’s opinions and concerns. They should examine the data they have at their disposal and then reach a conclusion. There are bound to be dissenters, but they must get them on board.

It’s fairly conservative to say ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ We should be progressive in our approach and instead say, if it can improve the system, let’s explore it.

If Modi wants to reform the civil services, he must consult widely and be transparent

Nitin Pai
Director, The Takshashila Institution

There is no doubt that while many bits of India are in the 21st and perhaps even 22nd centuries, we are all governed by a 19th century regulatory architecture administered by an early-20th century bureaucracy. The governance gap is not merely an obstacle to rapid economic growth. It is also an enduring source of social inequities and cultural fault lines.

If I were writing this in the mid-1980s, I’d say that there is a clear and present case for administrative reform right now. In 2018, we have to accept that it is no longer tenable, conscionable or politically safe to govern a $2 trillion economy with the status quo. There is no way the civil service can continue to deliver without developing deep specialisation in various domains of governance. Even the best general practitioner cannot carry out a simple angioplasty.

The Modi government’s apparent intention to reform the civil services is a recognition of this reality. In fact, administrative reform was one of the first things Manmohan Singh wanted to do when he became prime minister in May 2004. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) was constituted in 2005, and a group of ministers appointed to implement it in 2007.

Not much happened. Perhaps not much was allowed to happen. The institutional interests of the all-India services, and the bureaucratic politics among them, work towards the preservation of the status quo and incremental change.

Any move to reform the civil service must contend with a fundamental question: what is its purpose? Unlike in most countries, the civil service in India is not merely an administrative arm concerned with delivery of public services, but also an instrument of the social revolution that is enshrined in the Constitution. So we need to optimise for both efficiency and equity, which means we are likely to end up with something that’s neither the most efficient not the most equitable solution.

Therefore, if it wants to proceed with reforms, the Modi government must consult widely, be transparent with its thinking and process and be inclusive of various voices in society.

Current merit-based system based on exams works better

Vijay Singh
Former UPSC member, and retired IAS (Madhya Pradesh cadre), batch of 1970 

The older system is much better. Services are assigned according to the marks you secure. There is a vast difference in candidate rankings for the services, be it IAS, IFS, IRS, allied or others. All services are not equal. Essentially, they vary in the importance of the task a candidate is required to perform.

In the absence of a better system, a merit-based system that has worked with marks as its premise has stood the test of time. No one can quarrel with assignment of services and cadres based on an examination.

In the new proposed system, there may be a lot of pressure on those assessing you. Moreover, it will open up the system to allegations of favouritism. It is bound to become subjective.

I was a member of the UPSC when this demand came up in 2012-13. It was basically associations of other services that raised this demand. Even then, we had recommended against it. The great subjectivity it will introduce is counter-productive to a system that has always based its recommendations on merit.

We have to assume that the exam is fair. A three month model of assessment also possesses practical difficulties. How does one decide in just three months? Even after the cadre is allocated, experience and merit leave the avenue to switch to a different segment open.

The system at present is our best entry point. Why meddle with something that’s working fine.

PMO’s proposal is a move to replace merit with politics in civil services

E.A.S. Sarma
Former secretary, dept of economic affairs, ministry of finance, and former IAS officer (Andhra Pradesh cadre), batch of 1965 

The UPSC’s existing system of civil services examinations is, by and large, objective, professional and fair. It is perceived as such by the public. Successful candidates are assigned to different civil services on the basis of merit ranking emerging from it. In the case of All India Services, such ranking determines the State cadres to which the candidates are assigned. Such an objective approach is essential for ensuring the political neutrality and independence of the civil services.

The PMO’s recent proposal to disturb this system by giving weightage to a less objective, less professional one-time test conducted by the Mussoorie Academy at the end of the foundation course, and to decide the service on that basis, is highly imprudent and ill-conceived. I get the feeling that this is yet another move on the part of the present government to damage merit-based systems and replace the same with those that pave the way for politicisation of the institutions.

That such a potentially disruptive move should come, not on the basis of any elaborate scientific analysis, but as a diktat from PMO, is highly disturbing. Instead of moving forward in the direction of enhancing political neutrality and merit-based selection processes, the present government seems to be moving backwards, a trend that is potentially unhealthy for a democracy like ours.

Such decisions on civil services have long-term implications. Expert advice and a comprehensive evaluation of the pros and cons should have preceded any such proposal. The concept of collective responsibility of the union cabinet requires such proposals to be examined from all angles before they can be considered. The PMO should realise that its role cannot militate against that concept.

Reforms are an attempt to force probationers to toe the line of ruling chiefs

Dr R. Christodas Gandhi
Former additional chief secretary, and former IAS officer (Tamil Nadu cadre), batch of 1977

This is a nonsensical move. There is absolutely no need for tampering with the existing structure. It is nothing but a conspiracy of interested groups to prefer their own kind of people in the services.

The move will make probationers avariciously seek personal glory by resorting to all kinds of illegal means. The impartiality and integrity of the services which are already becoming rarer and rarer will now take total hit. The move is without doubt an attempt to induce the probationers, at the onset of their career, to toe the line of the ruling chiefs.

There is absolutely no question of merit when it comes to this proposal. Moreover, public servants require a certain kind of disposition and not merit alone to be good at their job. They must be able to humble themselves to the public. It is not only the function of the intellect.

The people selected by this process are likely to have no sense of responsibility towards the people. They will only owe their allegiance to their ruling chiefs.

One must ask, who are these set of people who will evaluate the probationers? They will only assess those probationers positively who fall at their feet and give rise to a ‘gurukul’ culture. There will be no objectivity in the assessment.

It will also give rise to a toxic, competitive environment that will promote self-aggrandizement. All of the probationers will end up competing for the favour of the assessor giving rise to mutual animosity. That is definitely not what we were taught at the academy. We learnt camaraderie and community skills, these probationers will miss out on that. It will be disastrous for India.

This is revisiting vedic educational patterns where the one who washes the dirty clothes of the guru best will be the most preferred. That is not what is expected of an Indian civil servant.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Sanjay Dixit
Additional chief secretary, Rajasthan

In principle, the idea is quite appealing. I have myself supported continuous evaluation and a mid-career exam for all bureaucrats. However, this is also fraught with dangers. UPSC has a rigorous and impersonal system of evaluation. It gives finality to the results. The proposed system would make the UPSC results provisional. That would be perceived as unfair.

The foundation course run by bureaucrats is designed to develop a close touch between them and the selected officers. If the stakes are raised so high, it would taint any evaluation exercise as personal. Allotment of service/cadre sets a lifelong course, and the LBSNAA is ill-equipped to deal with it. Having secured the highest marks in political science in the UPSC, it was baffling for me to have barely passed the constitution paper at the Academy. UPSC has a 3-tier checking process, the Academy does not. It would be a much better idea to have a mid-career exam by UPSC at 15-16 years and place officers in higher responsibilities on that basis, including to an Indian Judicial Service.

It seems that this is another gambit on part of the humanities lobby, as they feel edged out by the technology streams in the UPSC exams. What if the government chooses to influence the process by posting a pliant man at the helm? Since it is still at the ideas stage, I would just say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

Reforms will undo all the efforts to keep politics out of bureaucracy

Prakash Singh
Former IPS officer (Uttar Pradesh cadre), batch of 1959 

The recent proposal put forth by the PMO has caused heartburn among IAS officers. I remember, in my time, cadres were a final thing. They couldn’t change. Back then, the rules were pretty simple. 50% people were allocated home cadre. Other 50% came from outside. The pernicious process of changing cadres started much later.

To my mind, a three-month foundation course to determine what cadre and service a civil servant should be allocated creates too much scope for individual discretion. What inputs can assessors give in such a short period of time? It will only make room for subjectivity and inject pressure and influence into an otherwise seamless system.

There is a need for objectivity when it comes to such decision making in terms of civil servants. A mechanical process like the one we follow at present abides by the rules and keeps alive the principle of fair play. You score; you are rewarded according to your score.

We will create a messy situation by allowing individual discretion. Assessors will be under pressure. Lobbying and politicking will enter the process. Is that a desirable end?

The present method has been tried and tested. It has been refined over a period of time, changed and even improved. But such a move will undo all the efforts to keep politics out of bureaucracy. With what is happening to government institutions, public service commissions, it is all the more important for us to ensure that the bureaucracy stays above such politics.

Post-entry training performance of officers can bring bureaucratic effectiveness

Saksham Khosla
Research analyst, Carnegie India

The proposal to allocate service and cadre for aspiring civil servants only after the foundation course carries one clear benefit, a strong caveat, and several potential costs.

The pro is that performance in post-entry training offers a new data point with which to determine bureaucratic effectiveness. In a study of 5,635 IAS recruits entering government between 1975 and 2005, the Booth School of Business’s Marianne Bertrand and her co-authors found that officers that improved their training scores relative to their performance on the entrance exam received higher effectiveness ratings from a group of societal stakeholders.

This finding carries an obvious qualification: it can only be used as a subjective indicator of motivation and performance among individuals who have already entered civil service, and is relatively unhelpful in informing allocation decisions. It is unclear whether performance on the foundation course is at all indicative of an aptitude for one service or cadre over another.

The suggested change raises two risks. First, it enhances the discretionary authority of training officials. Any subjective category of evaluation in the training courses is liable to becoming an opportunity for rent-seeking and patronage.

Producing a new political economy of recruitment can severely undermine meritocratic entry and internal accountability.

Second, the time costs of incorporating foundation courses are substantial.

Another recent study found that candidates take an average of four attempts to clear the main entrance examination, and considering that some even retake the exam to get their desired service, the proposed change can add another procedural hurdle to an already lengthy recruitment process.

Several analyses have sought to demonstrate the role of older entering officers in the IAS’s declining human capital pipeline.

In sum, the proposal raises many more questions than it answers. Pending further detail on the precise mechanism through which Foundation Course performance is calibrated and weighted alongside the entrance exam, the prima facie case for implementing this radical shift in allocation decisions is rather weak.

Expecting better decisions based on a three month course is shortsighted

Sunjoy Joshi
Chairman, ORF, and former IAS officer (Madhya Pradesh cadre), batch of 1983

The question fundamentally depends on how objective you think which ranking is. Whether the academy ranking can be more objective is unlikely. It is simply because UPSC is a much larger and more impersonal system. The academy is a much smaller group, and systems tend to get personalized.

There are pros and cons to both. But there are doubts about the efficacy of the ranking that will emerge as a result of three months. The obvious next question is, why three months and why not the entire course? The course is not just about the foundation.

The UPSC marking system, aside from the interview, is absolutely blind. It follows the same kind of pattern as the American universities. I’m sure one can devise other means to examine a candidate. The whole point of scores, even in American universities, it to maintain distance from the candidates. That in turn ensures impartiality. After that, one can go on defining and refining the requirements.

As far as service allocation and posting are concerned, it is not the initial allocation we should be worried about. The system that needs to change is that once you enter a service, you don’t move to another. Say you become an IAS officer, then you’ll continue on trajectory which may not be available to someone from the foreign services. We need to allow lateral entry into services. As a matter of fact, that is a more reliable means of judging someone’s capability. You evaluate them after a certain number of years of experience.

As of now, it happens more as an exception rather than as a rule. But to say that you will take a better decision on the basis of a three month foundation course is shortsighted.

Prejudice against officers from backward communities may become too real a threat

Sanya Dhingra
Reporter, ThePrint

The PMO’s new proposal tinkering with the selection criterion for civil service cadre and service could be yet another government attempt to make institutions and the bureaucracy subservient to them.

At a time when the Election Commission, governors’ office, judiciary, etc. are all purportedly toeing the government line, for newly recruited bureaucrats to feel an added pressure to please their political masters is fraught with danger.

The move is bound to impact officers who come from minority communities and reserved categories, considering prejudice and biases will now be given a free play. Alarmist as it may sound, for bureaucrats hailing from reserved categories, the threat is only too real.

Data has shown that the representation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in bureaucracy is adequate only when the selection criterion has no room for individual discretion. So, while SCs, STs and OBCs clear civil examinations in significant numbers, their representation keeps shrinking as they go higher up the order.

The reason is that they are dependent on their seniors’ assessment for promotion – an assessment which can be laden with misogyny, and caste and religious prejudice. Consider this: while up to 50 per cent of seats are reserved for SCs, STs and OBCs, there are 81 secretary rank officers in the central government but only two are from scheduled castes and three from scheduled tribes.

What’s worse is that the explanation for this skewed representation comes rather easily to most: they got into the system because of reservation, but only the ‘deserving’ ones are promoted.

With these prejudices at work, it’s safe to assume that such a proposal could relegate Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women to services and cadres that those in power deem fit for them.

We need civil servants with moral courage, integrity. PMO’s proposals miss the problem by a long shot.

Harsh Mander 
Former IAS officer (Madhya Pradesh cadre), batch of 1980

The process of selection and training of higher civil servants has long been in need of urgent reform. But the proposals of the PMO reported in the press are not the reform that is required. Not by a long shot.

What are the problems in the current modes of selection and training? For me, it is that we need civil servants of moral courage, integrity and compassion, and the selection process contains nothing to identify these qualities, and the training does little to nurture these qualities of character.

The proposal is that an officer’s service and cadre should not be determined as it is at present by her position in the merit list in the UPSC examination. Instead, she should be evaluated during her 15 weeks in the foundational course of her training, and these marks should be added to her UPSC scores. The problem with this idea is that it carries within it the danger of teaching her conformism, hyper-competitiveness and sycophancy at the very start of her career.

I have been trained and served for three years as a trainer at the Mussoorie academy. At its best, this should be a time for trainees to reflect about their futures, make friends, sometimes for life, argue, dissent, and debate freely and openly about right and wrong. All of this will become impossible if officers are worried about their entire futures resting on how their superior officers evaluate them.

Compiled by Deeksha Bhardwaj, journalist at ThePrint.

For other expert opinions read: With civil-services revamp, enduring friendships at ‘Happy Valley’ will turn into competition by Shah Faesal

Civil service recruitment needs real reforms, not ad hoc approach by Nirupama Rao


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