Reform of the civil services: At home and away

Taking lessons from Great Britain on transforming bureaucracy in India

CK Mathew | June 3, 2019


#Great Britain   #bureaucracy   #civil services   #IAS   #Indian Administrative Service  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

The question of reform of the civil services has been debated extensively at all levels at least over the last five to six decades after independence. Indeed, it was soon perceived that the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) may not be well equipped to deal with the problems of an emerging developing country with its myriad problems of religion, caste, class, inequality and deprivation. 

In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru had serious reservations about the continuance of the British administrative system into the new paradigm of a free India. In his autobiography he has written: “…of one thing I am quite sure, that no new order can be built up in India, so long as the spirit of the ICS pervades our administration and our public services. The spirit of authoritarianism is the ally of imperialism, and it cannot coexist with freedom. Therefore, it seems to me to be quite essential that the ICS and similar services must disappear completely, as such, before we can start work on a new order.” He later admitted that one of his greatest failures was his inability to do away with the civil services as it existed. 

The character of the service has been debated ad nauseum, especially with relation to its generalist nature and the encouragement of the mai-baap culture where the IAS officer is highly venerated. This particular view emerged out of the many traditions and legends of the civil servants as established over the years of British suzerainty in the length and breadth of our country. Though they were initially inducted as agents of the East India Company, with the promulgation of the Government of India Act of 1858, and with the passage of time, they became fully empowered government officers, belonging to a cadre known as the Indian Civil Service, as established under law. However, seven decades later, these historical shadows and biases refuse to go away and are still imbued in the members of the IAS as they function today. 
 
There have been countless attempts pre- and post-independence to reform the IAS. That the members of this premier civil service have to be ‘the best and the fittest’, selected after a process of fair competition, is a given. In fact, this element of ‘discovery through competition’ became an essential element for the selection of the civil servants as far back as the middle of the 19th century.
 
Those with an interest in the history of the civil services may recollect that in 1853, the British Parliament passed an act referred to as the Charter Act to renew the East India Company’s charter and its activities in India. What was even more significant was that the charter included the recommendations of a committee chaired by Lord Macaulay for the creation of a permanent civil services for the administration of the colony. This Act removed the right of patronage to appointments in civil service as exercised by the directors of the company in those days. Thereafter, appointment was to be done only by fair competition based on merit and was open to all. The report recommended that only the ‘fittest’ be selected to the ICS. The committee portrayed the ideal administrator as a gifted amateur who, moving from job-to-job, was capable of taking a practical view of any problem, irrespective of subject matter, on the basis of his knowledge and experience of government. 
 
Ironically, today it is this generalist nature of the service that is receiving the most flak from critical quarters within and outside the government. It is understood that there are some 600 reports with recommendations of committees and commissions available in the record rooms of the government, most of them unimplemented. The first and second Administrative Reforms Commissions made extensive recommendations; so did various committees such as those headed by DS Kothari, PC Hota, Yugandhar, Surendra Nath, etc. 
 
Having said that it would be interesting to see what the British themselves have done, after the collapse of the Empire, for the reform of their own civil services. The first serious attempts were made by the British Government in February 1966, when prime minister Harold Wilson appointed a committee (chaired by Lord Fulton) to make recommendations on the civil services. Its report was published in 1968 and was the start of a series of reform measures that are still going on in the Great Britain. 
 
The report (1975) carefully listed out six main areas of inadequacy as follows: 
 
(a) The civil service was essentially based on the cult of the amateur or generalist who was moved too frequently from job to job and had no specific professional education or formal training for their work.
(b) The system of classes impeded the work of the civil service. The Fulton Committee was critical of the classification system, which it considered had caused the civil service to become rigid and had made it difficult for staff to move among the various classes. 
(c) Many scientists, engineers and other professional specialists were not given the responsibility or authority they deserved. The committee, therefore, recommended that these specialists be given more policy-making and management opportunities as well as training to equip them for their new work. 
(d) The committee considered that the civil service lacked skilled managers. One reason for this was that most of the work of most senior civil servants was not managerial, but rather related to routine office matters such as preparation of explanatory briefs or answers to parliamentary questions. To improve management skills, the committee recommended that administrators should become more specialised, and more training in management should be given to them as well as scientists and specialists. Further, the performance of individuals should be measured as objectively as possible, thus making them responsible for tasks they have performed.
(e) The committee considered that there was not enough contact between the civil service and the rest of the community and recommended greater openness in the government, less anonymity for officials, and greater mobility of staff into and out of the service. 
(f) The committee also took the view that within the civil service there were major defects in personnel management and recommended the creation of a new civil service department, within which the civil service commission, for recruitment, would continue to operate.
The impact of the Fulton Report was very far-reaching, and many of the numerous changes which took place in the civil service over the next thirty years had their origins in Fulton’s recommendations. 
 
So how does the Britain perform now? The International Civil Services Effectiveness Index, a collaborative report published jointly by the Blavatnik School of Government of the University of Oxford and the Institute of Government evaluated the effectiveness of the civil services of some 38 countries (India has not participated). The index looks at twelve key parameters: capabilities, crisis and risk management, digital services, fiscal and financial management, human resources management, inclusiveness, integrity, openness, policy making, procurement, regulation and tax administration. The report places Great Britain right at the top of the rank sheet. 
 
On the basis of this precedent, we now know that reforms in the civil services are possible in India: thus, we try to touch upon areas where immediate reforms are required. 
 
It is possible to summarise only the main ones:
a. The complete insulation of implementation from policy is one such desired reform measure. Today, both policy formulation and the implementation of the policy formulated, lie within the domain of the ministry or department concerned. Clear boundaries have to be drawn between the two. The current aberration lends itself easily to patronage, collusion, corruption and interference from the office of the minister right down to field level functionaries. The anomaly of ministers deciding the field postings of their minions is well known in our country. On the other hand, granting full independence and freedom from interference will make the chief executive of the programme or project concerned both responsible and accountable. Both success and failure will lie at his doorstep depriving him of the current excuse of excessive back-seat driving. Policy formulation at the ministry or secretariat level will be led by the minister concerned, assisted by a core team of subject matter experts and policy formulators, with the help of outside expertise where required. 
b. The clear determination of quantifiable objectives and measurable targets that, when evaluated, will reveal failure or success of the executive concerned. This has to be integrated with making available the required financial allocations, mutually agreed upon, so that later there are no pointing fingers or lame excuses. Currently, there is no specificity in the evaluation of the programmes, other than the counting of physical achievements and the accounting of expenditure incurred. Quality, public participation, satisfaction, etc. are intangibles that will have to be converted into understandable numbers so as to arrive at a clear assessment of the work performed. Management thinker Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
c. Where public welfare measures are involved, full disclosure of all the features of the programme must be made to the public at large, with active citizens’ groups being encouraged by the government to provide reaction, and even criticism, to put in place a continuous loop of implementation, monitoring, feedback and improvement. The success or otherwise of the programme is to be judged by the level of satisfaction expressed by empowered and informed citizens trained in the process of evaluation and assessment. This will also address the criticism that the Indian Administrative Service is elitist and far removed from the ordinary concerns of the people. 
d. The induction of specialists and domain experts to advise the government in matters of policy formulation with specific knowledge that generalist civil servants do not possess. Though civil servants baulk at this idea, they are to be encouraged to regard such experts, not as intruders, but as co-workers and associates in the task of governance and delivery of public services. The current reluctance to give space to experts and specialists at appropriate levels must be discouraged with a firm hand, with the advice that the government requires all knowledge and expertise, wherever available, to assist in the task of governance. Indeed, such expertise must be inducted into government through a transparent and competitive process so as to avoid all suspicion of nepotism or unfair means during selection. The recent process of appointment of joint secretaries in the government of India from external resource pools is an example. 
e. Of course, there may be areas where public participation may be limited, such as tax administration, public security, defence, etc. Here, the civil servant needs to keep himself abreast of latest developments, new technologies, intellectual property advances, for which his skills are to be regularly upgraded and improved. A continuous cycle of training and orientation has to become an essential part of his path of career progression, each such upgradation a necessary requirement for his advancement in his job.  
f. And finally, since the government works on behalf of the people that elected it to power, and since their programmes are funded by the tax payers’ money, there is a vital need to monitor the manner and nature of public expenditure, stretching the rupee to the extent possible. Every rupee must count, with a complete avoidance of luxury and waste. Splurging on propaganda must be frowned upon. Any defaulters must face the consequences, punishment being given with a heavy hand.
 
The prescriptions listed above are limited and may pertain only to the secretariat at the union government level or perhaps at the state government level. This also may not apply to district and field level administrative formations. Who can say if these changes would be disruptive and transformational? They may appear naïve and inadequate: they are neither complete nor exhaustive. But one has to start somewhere. 
 
If the maxim of ‘less government and more governance’ is to mean something, then reform must begin from the highest offices in the land: only then will the transformation flow down from the top, as John Ruskin would say, “unto this last”. 
 
Mathew is former chief secretary, Rajasthan; and visiting professor, Azim Premji University.

(The article appears in June 15, 2019 edition)

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