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Indian Administrative Service Does Not Need an Epitaph, It Needs Reforms

Photo for representation

Photo for representation

Academically brilliant individuals are selected on the basis of their written-communication skills, some analytical skills and general awareness. A leader, however, requires much more than that.

The statement of the Prime Minister in Parliament about the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) has set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons. Some are even gleefully writing the epitaph of the IAS. Some others who are accomplished authors but have no clue about the administration have gone on to suggest a re-christening of the service in the hope that perhaps changing the name would bring about the desired transformation.

The first question that needs to be answered is whether or not the IAS should cease to exist. In my four-year experience as Secretary, Government of India, never once did I find lack of clarity in what Narendra Modi articulated. As mentioned earlier, the PM was not only always blessed with clarity of thought and expression, he was always decisive. The statement made in Parliament was one of those rarest of rare occasions when one couldn’t really decipher the exact intent of what he said. Still, if I understood the PM correctly, I don’t think he gave any hint of abolishing the IAS. Hence, this article is constructed on that assumption.

There is absolutely no doubt that there is a need to have a close look at the IAS. There is also a need to re-structure the edifice as well as the content. The recently announced ‘Mission Karmayogi’ will probably address some of the issues that afflict the service. It will hopefully impart necessary expertise to the civil servant and equip her for the challenges during her tenure. However, is expertise the real problem? It is well known that expertise can be outsourced and is being outsourced but attitude can’t. Are we selecting persons with right attitude in the existing dispensation to man various positions that are so critical to governance? Are those getting selected being trained appropriately for this purpose? Are these officers managed professionally?

What to look for in an officer


The management of the senior civil service has left a lot to be desired. There has been no concerted effort to look at the management in a comprehensive manner. What really needs to be done is: look at how these officers are recruited, trained, transferred, assessed, incentivised and disincentivised by way of promotions.

Right from the beginning of their careers, be it a Sub Divisional Magistrate, a District Magistrate or the Head of a Department, an IAS officer occupies leadership position. This is also true even in the Secretariat jobs where each officer has to lead a team. Hence, it is essential to look at those who either have leadership qualities or have the potential to become leaders, and leaders worthy of respect. The leadership skills need to be honed during the training.

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The Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) is one of the finest institutions in the country and is above board. However, under the existing system of entrance exams, academically brilliant individuals are selected on the basis of their written-communication skills, some analytical skills and general awareness. Examinees’ capability to crack the exam is tested and various coaching institutes assist them in doing so. A leader, however, requires much more than that. She should be able to build a team. She has to motivate and carry this team along. This entails setting examples, even at the cost of a few personal sacrifices. Beyond writing skills, she has to excel in communication and soft skills. She has to be ethical and retain a positive attitude under pressure. None of these qualities are tested at the time of recruitment. We have tools today to assess these. Such tools are being used in the private sector and elsewhere in the world. Shouldn’t these tools be used while recruiting officers?

Training needs an upgrade

Training assumes an important aspect in moulding these entrants into accomplished leaders. It has to be focused on imparting the appropriate skills and attitude that would enable the officer to evolve as a leader. Thus, more than individual activities, the emphasis has to be placed on group activities and projects. It is during training that the ethos and the purpose of the service need to be drilled into the rookies. Case study-based methodology needs to be adopted to drive home the points.

It is not knowledge as much as attitude that requires transformation. The officers have to appreciate the necessity and utility of ethical behaviour. Periodic up-gradation of skills and learning from each other should be the focus of in-service training. This is imperative in the context of a fast-changing world, both in terms of technology and management.

Given the importance of mentoring, officers who have done well in their careers can be asked to mentor fresh entrants for the first few years. These initial years in the service are critical in moulding officers. Hence, they require a lot of support and guidance. Young officers need to be nurtured not left to a variety of ‘wolves’. The existing ethos does not encourage the culture of support and guidance. An institutional arrangement should be made in this regard.

The right assessment

Inclination and aptitude of the officer need to be closely monitored. This will help determine their postings and assignments. And, once assigned a task, she should be left to deliver. Frequent transfers can be extremely debilitating. Unfortunately, these seem to have become the order of the day in a number of states. If an officer is transferred frequently, not only is she unable to deliver, but responsibility cannot be fixed for her inability to perform. This has resulted in politicisation of the bureaucracy. The politician is happy but governance suffers.

The experiment with the Civil Services Board hasn’t really worked. This will have to be given a serious thought. Postings should be based on integrity and competence and not on pliability and allegiance. This can easily be done for critical posts. To begin with, an agency like the UPSC can be assigned to prepare a panel from which the government can select an officer.

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Promotions of officers are based on Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs). However, these ACRs have ceased to be confidential as a consequence of a Supreme Court order. All ACRs have to be now communicated to the officers concerned. The efficacy of ACRs has consequently been impacted as no reporting officer wants to get embroiled with an officer dissatisfied with a grade. The 360-degree evaluation in vogue for the past few years is even worse. It is opaque and has had a demoralising effect on the civil service. This concept has been borrowed from the private sector. However, unlike the private sector, the practice in the government is perfunctory. Assessment for empanelment is made on the basis of phone calls to peer group officers. No discussion is held with the officer who is being assessed. She is not even informed about the reason for not being empanelled.

Finally, a lot depends upon the nature of signalling by the government. Who is the government rewarding? Are the performers and those with integrity seen as ‘victors’ or is it those who shamelessly display their ‘allegiance’? Yes, the IAS has some issues. It has to evolve with the changing times. Berating the service in public will not help. It will demoralize the officers. Piecemeal tinkering will not work. It needs to be looked at in a comprehensive manner. And, this has to be done forthwith.

Disclaimer:Anil Swarup is Former Secretary, Government of India; Author of Not Just A Civil Servant & Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant; Founder Chairman of Nexus of Good Foundation. Views are personal.
first published:March 15, 2021, 11:40 IST