The Indian bureaucracy has often attracted criticism from the public for its “inefficiency”. Recently, during his visit to India, US Secretary of State John Kerry also lamented about the Indian bureaucracy being “an expert in setting up roadblocks”. A few
In a report released recently a US think-tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has pointed out that the Indian bureaucracy is facing a number of serious challenges — from diminishing human capital to political interference — and that, if left unaddressed, will lead to further institutional decline.
Eminent author and public intellectual Gurcharan Das had once said, “India grows at night while the Government sleeps.” Indeed, those who have come into contact with the Indian bureaucracy have long criticized it for being cumbersome, slow, inefficient and often venal.
In a report titled The Indian Administration Service Meets Big Data, a US think-tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the bureaucracy in the country is facing a number of serious challenges—from diminishing human capital to political interference— and that, if left unaddressed, will lead to further institutional decline.
“The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) occupies the nerve centre of the Indian State. Unfortunately, the IAS is hamstrung by political interference, outdated personnel procedures, and a mixed record on policy implementation, and it is in need of urgent reform,” the report states.
Though IAS officers constitute a tiny fraction of all government bureaucrats, this group represents the crème de la crème of the Indian Civil Services and its members occupy the most pivotal administrative posts across India at every level, from the district to the Central level. However, this “steel frame” has deteriorated over time due to political interference.
“An increasingly intransigent political executive has repeatedly abused its authority to transfer, suspend, and promote officers at will, damaging the morale of the service and brazenly politicizing its very essence. The quality of new hires is said to be falling as the best and brightest college graduates are unimpressed by uncompetitive public sector wages, while those who do enter government service are often not allowed to develop domain expertise that can inform policymaking in an increasingly complex, interconnected world,” the report says.
Interestingly, in his inaugural address to the nation in 2004, the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had said that refurbishing the IAS
will be an “immediate priority” for his Government. However, no visible reforms were introduced by his Government in the 10 years of its rule. Now more than a decade after, Singh’s successor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is echoing the same sentiments and has already committed to rejuvenate the “increasingly demoralized” bureaucracy.
DECLINING HUMAN CAPITAL
One reason for the IAS’s waning reputation, according to the US report, is the “supposedly diminishing quality of its recruits”. “Despite an incredibly competitive entrance examination — in 2016, only 180 candidates were selected from a pool of 465,882 applicants (a success rate of 0.038 percent)—the government is finding it hard to lure young talent away from increasingly attractive privatesector opportunities,” it states.
As per the study, beyond the declining quality of new IAS entrants, their poor remuneration and severe pay compression—a reduction in the ratio of the highest Government salary to the lowest—have had an adverse effect on the morale and social prestige associated with a Civil Service career.
POOR INCENTIVES FOR ADVANCEMENT
The report doubts whether the rules governing IAS advancement are allowing the best and the brightest to move up in the ranks. “The empanelment process, through which officers are selected for service in the Central Government, is highly opaque and can be influenced by the judgments of politicians who might wish to derail officers crossing them,” it states.
“The Indian Government should reshape recruitment and promotion processes, improve performancebased assessment of individual officers, and adopt safeguards that promote accountability while protecting bureaucrats from political meddling,” says the report authored by Milan Vaishnav and Saksham Khosla.
The report alleges that political interference generates substantial administrative inefficiency. “The best officers do not always occupy important positions, while political loyalty offers bureaucrats an alternative path to career success.. .Counter-intuitively, greater political competition does not necessarily lead to better bureaucratic performance,” it states.
LACK OF SPECIALIZATION
The report says that there is a lack of specialization in the Indian bureaucracy. It raises a pertinent question whether the IAS can continue to exist as a generalist service in a world that is increasingly complex and where domain knowledge has become more valuable. “The frequent rotation that officers experience in the service means that they are constantly developing new skills and new expertise but very rarely stay in one field or sector long enough to become genuine experts,” it states.
Also there is no systemic match between accumulated experience and postings officers get. “Specializing in a field does not raise the likelihood of working in that field at the Centre. An officer’s prior educational performance—whether he or she graduated in the first division of an undergraduate class and possesses multiple academic degrees—remains a robust predictor of earning a posting with the Central Government in New Delhi,” the report says.
The US think-tank also raised the pesky issue of what to do with the perennially underperforming officers. “While the Government can adopt smarter methods for ensuring that the best officers are selected, promoted, and placed in the right jobs, it must also find creative ways of dealing with poor performers,” it states.
The Second Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended that within the framework of a new civil services law, the Government institute a new policy whereby all officers who are deemed unfit for service at the time of their twentyyear review be forcibly retired. However, neither the Manmohan Singh Government nor the Modi administration embraced this suggestion. Nevertheless, he NDA-II has taken some steps to crack down on poor performers with the Government recently dismissing 13 bureaucrats for their unsatisfactory performance.
“This process of dismissing officers who are negatively rated at predictable career benchmarks should be institutionalized so that it does not rest on the preferences of any one government but becomes a transparently enforced and embedded rule,” the report states.
The US-based think-tank states that a reform agenda for the IAS must seek to resolve the perverse incentive structures that riddle the top functionaries of the Indian administration. It says the Central and State Governments should get pending legislation passed that protects bureaucrats against politically motivated transfers and postings.
“One step the present Government could take to rectify this situation is to prioritize action on a series of draft Bills that place constraints on politicians’ ability to arbitrarily transfer bureaucrats. This pending legislation includes the Public Services Bill (2007), the Civil Services Bill (2009), and the Civil Services Standards, Performance, and Accountability Bill (2010), all of which have been languishing,” the report states.
The US think-tank suggests that another step is that of increasing the career incentives for a bureaucrat. “The existing processes of recruitment and seniority-based career progression can introduce inefficiencies into the bureaucracy...Data-driven performance metrics could not only be used for promotions, but they also could help guide salary and remuneration decisions... data need not be the only criterion on which officers are judged. However, data could be one critical component,” the report states.
Data says that bureaucrats with strong local ties with their communities often outperform outsiders when it comes to delivering the public goods. “While a change to the national cadre allocation policy is unwarranted at this stage, reform-minded State cadres could experiment with increasing the number of local IAS officers and closely tracking their impact on development outcomes relative to other bureaucrats,” the think-tank suggests.
It further states that the Central and State Governments should discuss whether State cadres should be given greater latitude to experiment with increasing the proportion of local IAS officers and track their relative performance. ■
(Top) John Kerry, US Secretary of State. (Left) Minister of State for Power, Coal, new and renewable energy and Mines PiyUSh Goyal and the Deputy Secretary, Department of energy, US, elizabeth SherwooDranDall at the indo-US Ministerial Meet in new Delhi recently. also seen in the picture are senior bureaucrats PK PUJari, Power Secretary and UPenDra triPathy, new and renewable energy Secretary.