Debate | Civil Services: A Less Than Fair Assessment

It would be wrong to draw a direct parallel from the American and European examples of change in public service delivery effected through large scale successful private contracting.

The proposition that the civil services are a blanket failure and need to be reduced in their importance (‘The Civil Services Have Failed to Deliver and It’s Time to Reconsider Their Importance‘, N.C. Asthana, February 21, 2020) is poorly supported by facts or logic.

In any case, increased short term lateral entry at primarily policy analysis roles cannot translate into immediately enhanced service delivery where the political administration is inherently incentivised to achieve rapid results. Besides, lateral inductions of successful non-government professionals at senior levels in government as members of an existing service or on contract/outside cadres is not entirely new.

The positions of the Government of India, except a few, are not statutorily reserved for any service. Mere conventions govern the share of the various services in Central posts and an incumbent prime minister has near total freedom in shaping the senior civil service compliment by adjusting the induction of officers through deputation from various services in the departments and ministries.

The enhanced representation of some services in senior posts (conventionally joint secretary and above) is largely a reflection of two realities determining the functional character of the ministries. Firstly, that a large number of central ministries such as Rural Development, Public Health, Agriculture and Cooperation, Water Resources, Internal Security (Police), Urban Development are classified as state subjects in the constitution.

Secondly, the inherent diversity of the state and regional dispensations handling these subjects call for sufficiently granulated understanding of the diverse needs governed by regional-linguistic and cultural character. The requirement for senior staffing with a firm grounding in state subjects with regional nuance is naturally answered by an assemblage of professionals who have spent the initial decade handling state subjects, focusing on service delivery or regulation in specific regional contexts.

Also read: Debate: The Civil Services Are an Integral Part of India’s Growth Story

To expect dramatically improved results overnight in the same positions from an officer who has spent the formative years in the confines of a central department such as Income-tax or Defence Estates is over optimistic. Though a case for a specific person qualified with superior policy making skills can be made, the lacunae from direct experience of front-ending programme implementation will remain. It would be wrong to draw a direct parallel from the American and European examples of change in public service delivery effected through large scale successful private contracting due to the absence of effective markets in many sectors such as health care or primary education.

‘Expertise on tap, not top’:

Asthana has absolute clarity that the civil services are an unqualified failure in service delivery. But his yardsticks remain as unclear as his argumentative bias. He laments the relative uselessness of elite institutions in India’s development. He should see the rationale for continuing with an ICS like service post-independence in the Cabinet resolution for creating the IAS and IPS. It merely states that the newly and integrated Princely States (provinces) and the Presidencies directly governed by the Viceroy need a uniform standard of administration at the district and state levels.

In other words, a chief secretary or district collector or their counterparts in the police need to have the same formative background such as a university degree and needed to be trained to an even level of understanding the constitutional import of their office in addition to being at least trilingual in order to communicate with counterparts in other states or the Union government with whom state and district administrations need to be in functional communication.

Representative image of IAS officers. Photo: Twitter/@rashtrapatibhavan

Asthana worries that the decade-old Google does not reflect the intellectual rigour required of India’s senior civil service. I would argue that considered per capita, the Indian civil servants are more into publishing and intellectual discourses than their first world counterparts.

There is an interesting anecdote of of a US Army delegation at Delhi in the late nineties finding their Indian counterparts far more pedantic and intellectual than required. Decision memos for US presidents prepared by their under secretaries are never more than a page as compared to our voluminous cabinet notes called for by the complexities of the question being addressed.

There is great need to educate the service delivery machinery to be much more more businesslike and precise in their communication. Similarly, policy making levels need different data and evidence related skill sets to be honed.

Also read: The Civil Services Have Failed to Deliver and Its Time to Reconsider Their Importance

The requisite broad understanding of both the national character and regional nuance of an issue cannot be confused with the “understanding of a mere common man”. In fact, Asthana’s confusion resulting in this depreciation of the common man’s view of a complex issue has been answered well by Harold Laski in his celebrated essay ‘The limitations of the expert‘ (1931).

Laski forcefully establishes that “the expert sacrifices the insight of common sense to the intensity of his experience, dislikes the appearance of novel views, fails to see his results in their proper perspective, has a ‘caste – spirit’ and simply by reason of his immersion in a routine tends to lack flexibility of mind once he approaches the margins of his special theme. Specialism seems to breed a horror of unwonted experiment, a weakness in achieving adaptability, both of which make the expert of dubious value when he is in the supreme command of the situation”.

Summarising his preference of the common man’s uncommon wisdom to the rare man’s shared perceptions, Laski says experts should be “on tap, not on top”.

Public leadership: A Laskian design

Democracies are famously Laskian in their choices for public service leadership. Businessmen, lawyers, military leaders, career civil servants, novelists, poets, performing artists, and public activists are all elected as mayors, prime ministers and presidents in democracies.

Personal special knowledge of their chosen vocation or learning definitely helps them take better informed calls in and around those disciplines better than others. However, his choice of alternatives depends on his options that are likely to be those more endorsed by the common man who trust him rather than his trust in the acute expertise of the proponents of the proposal. The considered endorsement from a diversity of actors who have regionally granulated experience of the question is a far superior test deck rather than those of ideologically same-feathered lateral inductees or pro bono advisors as several watershed reforms that did not entirely satisfy the intention have shown.

Asthana’s comparisons of leadership in the United States Urban Policing actually goes to disprove his main argument which is that the civil service system needs to be improved (by reducing importance) through lateral recruitment at senior levels. He would argue that a foot-patrol man selected through rigorous internal departmental examinations or screening is the best bet for a two year term as New York City Police Commissioner.

Firstly, the New York’s Commissioner of Police is a discretionary political appointment made by the mayor of the city subject to rules and precedent made by the city. Regional policing in the US is a city subject reflecting its aboriginal rights in the colonies which formed the federation. The US Constitution and its machinery has evolved in a gap filling nature and predominantly prohibits the US federal government from entering and regulating the lives of the citizens.

Indian city administrations are mandated by a later amendment in the Indian Constitution and the constitutional Mayor in India is only 25 years old. Would Asthana recommend the selection of City Police Commissioner at the discretion of the city mayor from its constabulary? Firstly, law and order administration in India is not yet devolved to the local bodies.

Experience of structure, philosophy and methods of policing may not be satisfactory. Even assuming that it is devolved in future, does he think that such selection will be free from the inherent noises that vitiate a fair selection in the Indian scene such as community/representational considerations? How does he see the State and Union Public Service statutes operate in that selection?

If the cities were free to choose their police chiefs to diverse selection parameters, how do we ensure that the city police chiefs talk to each other in India’s highly diverse linguistic-cultural mosaic? His uneven comparison with the profile of New York’s police chief as a potentially ideal system, masks the continuing dissatisfaction of New Yorkers to New York’s police administration.

Further, he forgets that a third of the compliment of Indian Police Service of each Indian state is actually recruited from the State Police Service with due weightage for their performance also estimated through departmental examinations. Would he like the Mayors involvement in this screening by a beginning through performance reporting? I am not sure he may agree.

Indianisation: an unfinished agenda

The ghost of ICS is repeatedly cast on the IAS and its sister services without noticing the vast Indianisation that has changed the once prevalent Anglican elitism in the services. English anecdotes from the past century do not reflect the intense Indianisation and democratisation services like the IAS have undergone.

The services have become very broad-based, now recruiting from hundreds of small town colleges and institutes than a handful of English founded urban colleges which over-represented in the initial years and reflect much better the diverse social reality of India. After the Mandal reforms of 1994, it reflects Indian social segments better as well.

A task unfinished

Asthana ought to have seen that, like the story of national development, the task of civil service remains an ever unfinished one. In the very state he spent his time, he fails to notice the new ground broken by his colleagues by innovatively combining micro-finance and self-employment to empower women (Kudumbashree founded by S.M. Vijayanand, T.K. Jose and James Varghese), a joint sector airport developed first time by a State with private capital (CIAL by V.J.Kurien) becoming a model in PPP based civil airport development, decentralised tourism promotion councils and cost effective housing (C.V. Ananda Bose) and People’s Planning and Decentralized Service Delivery through Panchayati Raj (S.M.Vijayanand) which have become national models and templates for other States and nations.

The differential development in human capital, industrialisation and social development achieved by the front running Indian States such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Himachal Pradesh is a standing testimony to the intensity of the variegated state development machinery at work. Mandate of the people is converted through the imagination and commitment of the generalist elected leader through ground truth policies and practices developed by civil servants and specialists.

The junior levels cut their teeth through effective implementation of the schemes and programmes which becomes the base to reform and refine the practice and policy in later years.

PM Modi interacting with IAS trainees. Photo: PTI

No doubt, the opportunities in civil services as it exists in India offers huge responsibility and challenges to an aspiring young person. Part of the aspiration may be unjustified non edifying self-gratification also. I have during my own humble innings, and have come across recruits chasing ‘15 minutes of fame’ projects and mistaking glamour for moving mountains of hard work.

Nevertheless, the huge opportunity given by the country in two decades to try and reach five lakh homes with drinking water, successfully vaccinate and prevent loss of animal farming fortunes, make sense of induction training to young civil servants, assist a minister in office and parliament in disposing individual cases and developing policy, conceiving and grounding the development of a young university from scratch, extending quality power and water services, and calling hundreds of contentious over-litigated disputes in our democratic polity remanded even by the Supreme Court has certainly instilled a sense of a humongous responsibility and opportunity for a young and inexperienced mind which has the right motivation and ready to take on the rigour of a 23-hour daily drill in continuously pursuing functional knowledge in one’s assigned domain.

The mode of a cvivl service systems operation is not an inert system of sui-generis rules and techniques operating in a political void. Even astute technologists and econocrats have to take their trade skills through the prism of politics where influence and communication rules technical narrow cast objectives.

Asthana’s quick judgment does not display a considered evaluation of the thinking and rationale of makers of India’s civil service such as Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon. The house of the civil service needs fixing badly, and maybe part of the solution is allowing lateral inductees to join the services at higher levels also.

Maybe the regulars need the same reasonable contractual space, i.e., two-three years in a seat to develop a body of work as well? Even now there is a 10% window that the states select their non-state civil service officers into IAS. This can possibly be expanded as a one-sixth vacancies window to be recruited regularly by the UPSC from eligible private sector candidates.

Inducting eligible candidates outside services as contractual joint secretaries or advisors is the complete privilege of a prime minister who is not shackled by any constitutional or statutory restraint to limit his choice of able men and women to staff his government. Will Asthana trust the state and city dispensations also to choose their higher civil service-as the Indian mayors to have their police chiefs at pure discretion?

I am sure he may like to think over his premise again.

Dr. B. Ashok is a former Vice Chancellor and civil servant. All views are personal.