Editorials, GS-2, Uncategorized

Civil Service Reforms: Few ‘Innovations’ By NITI Aayog, If One Can Call Them So

As civil service reforms go, the Niti Aayog’s Three Year Action Agenda: 2017-18 to 2019-2020, released recently, contains little that is new or innovative. The idea that policy making is a specialized activity and needs lateral entrant of specialists on fixed-term contracts to bring in competition into established career bureaucracy has been talked about for years and is a tautology today. The same goes for making the goals and progress available publicly to incentivize delivery and measure performance objectively, with high performance rewarded and poor performance reprimanded. Likewise, E-governance is no new beer, as is outsourcing of services; they’re old wine in new bottles.

The only innovation, if one can call it so, seems the plea for longer tenure of Secretaries. It creates two important inefficiencies. One, with a time horizon shorter than two years, the officer is hesitant to take any major initiatives. Two, and more importantly, to the extent that any misstep may become the cause for charges of favouritism or corruption post retirement, the officer hesitates to take decisions on any major project. This causes an inordinate amount of delay in decision-making. The inefficiencies are two-fold: (a) hesitation to take any major initiative; and (b) fear of misstep to take decisions on any major project.

It’s bemusing how these two inefficiencies can be overcome with longer tenures. For one, empirically, officers with tenures of more than 2 and going up to 3/4 years haven’t fared any better than the ones with shorter tenures. Lack of foresight and initiative aside, to be fair, they have been moved around to more than 2-3 departments/ministries, thereby not granting them the time needed to settle down and make salutary contributions. But it’s not fair to blame the system entirely for there are departments/ministries that are low/high in the mandarin’s perception/weight indices and with the long window available to them, there is the human urge for upward pecking mobility. Lobbying, jostling, networking (see the work-hours wasted here!), nepotism, and favouring the powers-that-be through subtle sleight of hand are rife. One has with growing frustration seen how people with no little knowledge/experience, but with the right “connect” and “networking”, go up and up the proverbial totem pole only because the new post figures high in the perception-cum-weighty index and is a better springboard for post-retirement sinecures. This is the nub.

Like statistics, the Niti Aayog’s eggheads conceal more than what they reveal; its platitudinous recipe is less relevant than what it shrouds: post-retirement sinecures. The heart of the problem is that no bureaucrat (apart from one-odd outliers) ever wants to retire. In a feudal mindset, retirement sucks: identity-loss after a lifetime of humongous ego-trips and condescension, vanishing into the woodwork is the hardest ask; retirement is sudden cold-blooded cremation. Hence exists the the intense urge to stay on somehow. It is also the reason why senior officers close to R-Days take calculated and “desperate” gambles to “oblige” political masters at the cost of their much vaunted “professional ethics”. In effect, the two “inefficiencies” stay. One wishes the Niti Aayog had provided answer to this endemic nettlesome syndrome that defeats every sanguine public motivation.

One wonders how practical and efficacious Niti Aayog’s suggestion for specialization and induction of lateral recruits for a fixed tenure is. No questions are asked on the need for specialists and domain experts in public policy, but the issue is: Given the bureaucratic construct, will this behemoth of bureaucracy easily admit and acknowledge the role and contribution of the newbie, especially when their own unimaginative low-performance and lassitude hitherto unquestioned will (inevitably) be shown in poor light in comparison. Though a fixed tenure might help shielding the laterals from being junked midway, will frustration not creep into their day-to-day efficiency, thereby nullifying the cross-pollination and cross-fertilization of their ideas? Will they be accorded their due for the contribution made to improve public policy and the same acted upon without bureaucratic machinations and legerdemain? Or will the ear of political masters earned by mandarins negate any such noble impulses making it a zero-sum game?Public policy issues are roiled – apart from the much-maligned and putative red-tape-worm – in time-worn vested interest, personal advancement, colonial baggage and mindset. Holistically, the answer is in tightening governance’s value system. Financial malfeasance is bad, but worse is intellectual dishonesty, subtly crafted under the guise of amnesic mnemonics, poor data analysis and obfuscating interstitial interpretation kept under wraps in grimy official records. Financial misgivings no matter how convoluted they are, still palpate; intellectual dishonesty covertly hemorrhages.

For a feudal society with a bespoke traditional mindset of grand reparative gestures to espouse and promote the biradiri cause and where the state is seen as omnipotent and where few realize power is but abuse of power, it is imperative to have an arm’s-length system.

But is that enough? Maybe not. There could be a need to actualize implication of Robert Klitgaard’s formula on dishonesty: Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability (C=M+D-A). Even that too may not be enough. Proactive disclosure provided under Section 4 of the RTI Act 2005 will need to be sculpted into the e-governance platform. In this our Indian Gilded Age, the atmosphere is agog with ideas and impulses despite the consistent stonewalling of the established order. Citizen rants against diminishing public value are getting louder by the day.

True, in today’s battle of dialectics opacity wins, but then for how long? Over time and amid battling dialectics, society’s voice will inexorably tilt in transparency’s favour. The USA too went through the Gilded Age and the trauma of the robber barons. They came out of it triumphant through laws crafted in the teeth of opposition. For us the battle may be long and hard too but it’s time we had better see the future. I wish the Niti Aayog had the vision to sense a Eureka moment here and suggested measures to move in that direction.

Editorials, GS-2, Public Admin 2, Uncategorized

State of the service

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.