Reforming the civil services—one of the last vestiges of our colonial legacy
By: Hardayal Singh & Shareen Joshi
India’s higher civil service faces a conundrum: youthful job-seekers, especially those coming from coming from smaller towns and cities and rural areas, revere it. Last year’s preliminary exam screened more than a million aspirants for 980 vacancies. Yet, the system is also frequently blamed for being inefficient, corrupt, inward-looking and out of touch. In a Planning Commission paper, Arvind Panagariya regrets that the reforms of 1992 left this “mother of all monopolies” untouched. A 2012 study ranks the Indian bureaucracy as the worst in Asia. A World Bank assessment similarly shows a deteriorating rank from 35th in 1996, to 46th in 2014.
The reform of this institution has now become necessary. The Department of Personnel has been tasked with the responsibility of designing a scheme for lateral entry into the government at the level of deputy secretary, director and joint secretary. The rationale is simple. Outside experts with fresh ideas, specialised skills and better work practices could generate internal competition and improve organisational performance. Though the idea is very much in the national interest, it is unpopular within certain sections of the civil service. The current system is after all, largely a colonial legacy, based on the Northcote–Trevelyan Report of 1854, built on the premise that a well-educated liberal arts graduate, recruited on merit, is capable of occupying any position in the government. The British founded their home civil service on this principle; and later, created the Indian Civil Service on identical lines.
British accounts of colonial history seem to support this idea. Philip Woodruff’s “Men who Ruled India” for example, provides many examples of outstanding civil servants of the days of the Raj. When it came to the maintenance of law and order and the collection of land revenue for the empire, the system worked well. After World War II, however, administrative systems world over came under pressure, as public management became increasingly complex. Administrators now had to implement economic development programmes, and expand services in health, education, agriculture and other areas. In India, they are also required to lead multi-disciplinary teams that supervise functioning of banks, regulate the environment, advise on macro-economic policies, represent the country at the WTO, negotiate tax treaties, coordinate centre-state financial relations, etc. The establishment of new development and poverty alleviation programs, and the emergence of the bottom-up system of Panchayati Raj have further complicated the administrator’s role.
In the UK, some of the tension between bureaucrats and technocrats was captured well by Sir CP Snow in a celebrated essay entitled “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”. The besieged role of the generalist administrator was also at the heart of the Fulton Committee Report (1967), which proposed reforms that led to the abolition of the superior status of the general administrator and the creation of a unified civil service. At present, lateral entry to civil service is common in the UK and many other countries like the US, Australia, Belgium, New Zealand and Netherlands
In India, the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and the Sixth Pay Commission suggested bringing in outside experts from the academia, private sector and NGOs.
The civil service, however, has remained unreformed. Entrenched vested interests have prevailed. Critics point out that guaranteed promotions and protection from penal action have made its members increasingly unaccountable, unresponsive, and walled off from the society they pledged to serve. This is a far cry from the model which Max Weber, one of the first modern sociologists to study bureaucracy, eulogised. None of this is surprising, of course. Bureaucracies, according to William Niskanen, an American economist, are hierarchies that are not subject to market discipline. Internal competition through practices such as lateral hiring could perhaps help to surmount this innate problem. Recent experience provides some reassurance. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Vijay Kelkar, Arvind Subramanian, Arun Maira, Prakash Tandon, Lovraj Kumar and V Krishnamuthy and others entered the civil service laterally and have contributed handsomely. The experience of other countries also confirms that easy movement in and out of the civil service has many benefits.
The path forward is clear. Joint secretary and above, every position should have a detailed job description with clearly defined responsibilities, goals and accountabilities. It should as far as possible be open to both insiders as well as outsiders who possess the requisite domain knowledge and experience. Transparent systems of performance review should also be implemented. The proposed reform should be good news for civil servants. This is a chance to improve and become more relevant in modern India. It may be even better news for stressed students of the next preliminary exam. The message to them is clear: if you aren’t one of the fortunate 0.1% who are selected this time, go and build your skills elsewhere, for you may have your chance later.
Singh was chief commissioner, I-T and ombudsman to the I-T department, Mumbai. Joshi is assistant professor, international development, Georgetown University