We currently treat our best bureaucrats badly because we don’t punish bad ones; our government has become too big for small things and too small for big things; and the state is unable to deliver on its own intentions.
Blaming India’s bureaucracy for all this is silly. (notables bureaucrats include V.P. Menon for the integration of princely states and Sukumar Sen for our first election). The only job of the civil services is execution, but not only is the bureaucracy’s collective performance on that narrow metric painful, many bureaucrats don’t have the specialisation to deliver the 12 projects detailed in Nandan Nilekani’s wonderful new co-authored book, Rebooting India . Further, the notion that bureaucrats must protect India from its politicians is wrong and not dissimilar to academic Daniel Bell’s case in his recent book, The China Model, that choosing country leadership without elections delivers superior policy outcomes. In a democracy, policy is a child of politics.
The first avatar of India’s bureaucracy was the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The second avatar began after Independence. Sardar Patel convinced Nehru of the importance of a “uniform national administrative structure with considerable central control”. A permanent generalist civil services staffed by a highly meritocratic selection process led to a golden period for the civil services because politicians and bureaucrats were idealistic and frugal, one-party democracy kept the political economy simple, and the primary goal was nation-building. The third avatar began in the 1970s, when the national political monopoly broke down, politics became the country’s highest EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) margin business, idealism diminished and bureaucrats began taking sides.
This led to them losing their independence, retaining their permanence and amplifying their “generalness”. It also coincided with the start of the period — 25 years after Independence — when nation-building skills became less important than poverty reduction skills.
The fourth avatar of the bureaucracy should be about creating an adventurous and accountable state focused on execution. Moving to a cost-to-government structure that monetises all benefits, like houses and cars, and enrols everybody in the employee state insurance and provident fund schemes will enable a more liquid and fluid civil servant labour market. Sharper performance management will end the “outstanding” ranking for 95 per cent of civil servants, which punishes the good and honest ones. This will also enable giving top jobs to 45-year-olds. Then, it will replicate the up-or-out colonel threshold of the army, which prevents the pyramid from becoming a cylinder; people not shortlisted for promotion beyond joint secretary should retire early. It will create a UPSC-administered lateral entry process at the level of joint secretary, equal to 30 per cent of staff. It will introduce an equivalent of Australia’s senior executive service, under which all appointments after joint secretary will be done on five-year contracts through an open application process.
It will enable 25 per cent of all senior positions to be co-terminus political appointees confirmed by a standard and transparent vetting process. It will create a culture of bold decision-making with explicit legal protections; the backseat drivers and post-mortems of the last decade have created an understandable preference for following rules over doing the right thing.
The Indian state is not designed for the scale, complexity and accountability it faces. This is not the bureaucracy’s fault. Change will be most sustainable and effective if it comes from inside the civil services, but their senior leadership often spend their final years trying to get post-retirement jobs, rather than caring about systemic reform or their younger colleagues.
Change from outside is a second-best choice, but it is unrealistic to expect people to cut the tree they are sitting on. We need a new configuration of the capabilities and relationship between siyasat (the politics), hukumat (the state) and awaam (the people). Voters are massively changing politics. But only politicians can do civil service reform.