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How Can India Reform Its Civil Service?

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The Pulse

How Can India Reform Its Civil Service?

“It is impossible to run a 21st century economy with a 19th century bureaucracy using 18th century rules.”

How Can India Reform Its Civil Service?
Credit: Flickr / narendramodiofficial

“…in no other democracy do generalists so comprehensively corner the top jobs at the higher levels of the administration. In no other modern society does a person, who got a high rank in an examination 35 years ago, automatically go on and be allotted a high-status, high-impact, and vastly important government job, based only or largely on that exam rank.”

Ramachandra Guha

The Indian Civil Service functioned through most of British rule in India as the steel frame that kept the Raj aloft. Post-independence, the role of manning the most important administrative positions in both the central and state governments fell to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). It is hard to overstate the range and degree of influence that this cadre of officials exercises in India. One hundred and eighty individuals are accepted into the IAS each year from over a million applicants following a multistage examination. While this process results in the recruitment of some incredibly bright young men and women, it has also resulted in a situation where, as one commentator observes, “a potato expert is looking after defense, a veterinary doctor is supervising engineers, and a history graduate is dictating the health policy.”

In a setup where the tenure of 70 percent of the IAS officers does not exceed 18 months, such a state of affairs is inevitable. As an IAS officer, himself ranked first in the year of his selection, says: “It is impossible to run a 21st century economy with a 19th century bureaucracy using 18th century rules.”

The present Indian government finally seems to be on board with this view.

On June 10, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened 10 senior joint secretary positions to a lateral entry scheme for private professionals. Presently, these positions are available in government departments relating to the economy, transportation, and the environment. This move has ignited a firestorm. By and large however, the reactions have been cautiously optimistic. It takes little convincing to come the conclusion that the same administrative set up that was put in place to advance the needs of the empire — collect revenue and maintain law and order — is not the one that is best suited to serve the needs of a democracy striving for rapid and equitable economic growth.

In the past two decades, the Constitution Review Commission (2002), the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008) and the NITI Aayog’s 3 Year Action Agenda (2017) have all noted that the rising complexity of modern day policymaking is increasingly shifting the pendulum in favor of domain specialization instead of generalized competence. Each has supported lateral entry into the civil services. This is a shift that even India’s “source” country (with respect to the bureaucracy), the United Kingdom, started making as early as the mid-20th century, when the Fulton Commission started privileging domain knowledge over simple seniority and “experience.”

In the longer run, much of the push for specialization will have to be an internal one. One proposal advocates categorizing ministries into three groups — welfare, regulatory, and economic — and then having officers spend the remainder of their careers within these groups. Another proposal draws an analogy with the armed forces and advocates for the creation of clusters such as: security, economic, engineering, social, science, and technology.

Already, the Modi government has broken the IAS’s stranglehold on senior level appointments in the Indian bureaucracy. Since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014 an undernoted but pivotal trend of non-IAS officials cornering an ever-increasing share of joint secretary-level positions (close to half of them) has emerged.

The fact is that there is a shortfall of over 20 percent of IAS cadre officers in 24 state cadres. In such a situation the state governments are understandably not enthused by the prospect of sending IAS officers on deputation to the center. There is a long history of “outsiders” who have done stellar work in the government. It was the current opposition party, the Indian National Congress, in fact which started this in the 1970s when it appointed Yoginder K. Alagh as the head of the Perspective Planning division of the Planning Commission. Sam Pitroda, who ushered in the telecom revolution in India; Nandan Nilekani headed the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India — the Aadhaar system); the economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia; and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are the other prominent examples.

Inducting private sector talent at the senior levels is a benefit in three ways. One, it can help to directly ameliorate the shortage of officers in key positions. Second, bringing in external talent will help bring in fresh ideas, an openness to risk-taking, and a more target-oriented administration than is presently the case. Third, in a bureaucratic structure characterized by mediocrity, the prospect of competition would incentivize the minimization of department hopping and force all other services to specialize. Few dispute that the near automatic career progression of IAS officials only fuels a sense of complacency that sets in the moment its candidates get selected to the service given the autopilot track that their careers then take. Next to no one in the IAS is ever removed from service for poor performance.

There are certainly some legitimate issues that need to be addressed with the introduction of a system of lateral induction. To begin with, there is the question of the manner in which these private professionals are to be chosen and what degree of involvement, if any, the Union Public Service Commission (the authority presently responsible for conducting selections to the Civil Services of India) should have. The core concern here is ensuring that nepotism does not become a factor that results in politically connected individuals being the only ones who get appointed.  The hiring guidelines currently only specify that the candidates who apply online will be called for a “personal interaction with the selection committee.” This requires further clarification.

Then there is also the possible demoralization of the career government servants owing to what Vivek Rae identifies as the “inequitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of government service” where the “humble” tasks of implementation are done by career bureaucrats while the “glamorous” policymaking is done by lateral entrants. This is connected to the frequently advanced argument that IAS members act as a link between the common man and policymaking by virtue of their exposure to the ground realities through field experience in their initial years of service. The absence of similar exposure and sensitivity with respect to India’s complex sociopolitical setup is cited as an argument against inducting private professionals into the upper rungs. It is additionally alleged that private professionals, by virtue of their specialization, suffer from tunnel vision, which obstructs the taking of a broader view. This ignores the counterargument that IAS officials frequently rely too much upon their own core competencies and experiences, which lie in the form and process, often at the expense of understanding policy content. As for the former argument, however, a simple yet elegant solution would lie in a mandatory “district immersion” for a stipulated number of years out of the total period of their employment.

A long road of trial and error lies ahead for the present initiative to gain mass, permanence and to spread to the numerous government departments that are presently excluded from its ambit (such as Home, Defense, Corporate Affairs etc). A wide-ranging process of consultation and deliberation is required to ensure that an “institutionalized, transparent process” is put in place for lateral entrants as envisaged by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission. The Indian Civil Services and the Indian Administrative Service in particular shall have to rapidly adapt and change if they are to remain the steel frame and not the steel cage of India.

Himanil Raina is a graduate of the NALSAR University of Law.