Institutional reforms are must if we want to stop the rot in civil services
BP Mathur | January 19, 2018
An IPS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre holding the post of assistant superintendent of police was caught cheating, using high-tech gadgets, while appearing in the IAS examination in October, as was widely reported in the media. The case has shaken the conscience of the enlightened citizenry and shows the rot that has set in the civil services of the country.
The young officer who had just entered the premier service had been running coaching institutes for young aspirants to the civil services and had issued advertisements to that effect, in gross violation of service conduct rules, but the authorities apparently looked the other way. This case has been viewed generally as an isolated instance of misconduct on the part of an individual officer, rather than one of systematic default and a lack of ethics and moral conduct on the part of members of the elite civil services.
A question arises as to why a person who has joined IPS or for that matter any Group A Central Service after clearing a very tough, highly competitive examination, should be allowed to appear in that examination again to ‘improve his rank’, so that he can switch to IAS or some other central service of his choice. If such an option is given, will not the candidate neglect his training and bunk classes, as clearing the civil services examination requires fulltime attention and gruelling hard work? Will not the salary paid to the probationer and the huge expenditure and energy spent by various training academies such as that of police, railway or income-tax go waste if he is allowed to switch to another service?
I had the mortification to face this problem while I worked as director of the National Institute of Financial Management, responsible for training candidates allocated to central finance & accounts services (Indian Civil Accounts Service, Railway Accounts, Defence Accounts, Postal Accounts and Indian Audit & Accounts Service). A large number of probationers appear in the civil services examination repeatedly ‘to improve the rank’ with a view to switch to IAS and other central services. This leads to probationers neglecting training and undisciplined conduct. The directors of training institutes or the cadre authorities to which the candidate belongs (Railway Board, Income-tax/Customs & Excise Board, Comptroller & Auditor General) find themselves in helpless situation, as once a particular rank and seniority is assigned on the basis of the civil services examination, it cannot be disturbed for the rest of the career (unless there is a disciplinary proceedings against the individual). The civil services examination review committee headed by veteran educationalist and former union minster YK Alagh had recommended that at the conclusion of two-year training, the probationers’ performance and suitability be reviewed by UPSC, jointly with the director of the training institute and the cadre authority, before he is confirmed in service. This would help in weeding out undeserving candidates, whose performance was not up to the desired standard.
The situation on the ground today is that a new recruit to civil service knows from day one that he can act ‘smart’ and promote his personal interest and agenda, least bothered whether it is at the cost of larger public interest. This situation has developed largely due to the cavalier attitude of the government, particularly the department of personnel, towards discipline and ethical conduct on the part of young recruits to the civil services. The department of personnel enjoys a strangulating hold on all personnel matters of government employees and gives no leverage or autonomy to the departments where the employee works to regulate their conduct, behaviour and service conditions.
The existing conduct rules, a legacy of our colonial past, are totally inadequate to deal with situations of transgressing ethical and moral norms by civil servants. They are a set of dos and don’ts and do not lay down values which a civil servant should follow. This is in stark contrast to countries that have an efficient and corruption-free civil service and have been constantly bringing changes in rules and standards in accordance with changing times.
In the UK, a Committee on Standards of Public Life headed by Lord Nolan had recommended in 1995 seven principles for all holders of public office. Following its recommendations a code of values was prescribed for civil servants in 1996, which was further revised and elaborated in 2006. The prescribed core values are: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. In 2010 the civil service values were put on statutory footing through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act and made part of contractual arrangement between the civil servant and his employer department. Ethics codes on similar lines have been enacted by other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore. The USA promulgated the Ethics in Government Act in 1978, which enjoins setting up of an Office of Government Ethics, with a view to promote ethics and financial integrity in government. The OGE has an elaborate ethics infrastructure which includes four elements: enforceable standards; financial disclosure system; programme of training and counselling and an enforcement mechanism.
In India the Second Administrative Reforms Commission in its report on ‘Ethics in Governance’ (2007) and ‘Refurbishing of Personnel Administration’ (2008) had recommended that civil service values which all public servants should aspire be defined and made applicable to all tiers of government and parastatal organisation. The code of ethics should include: integrity, impartiality, commitment to public service, open accountability, devotion to duty and exemplary behaviour. Any transgression of these values should be treated as misconduct, inviting punishment. The government has not acted on its recommendations and as on date we do not have an ethics code to guide the behaviour of civil servants nor an effective ethics infrastructure to punish a public servant for malfeasance. As a matter of fact, during the last fifty years, since the time the first Administrative Reforms Commission was set up (1966-70), a number of high-level committees and commissions with eminent experts as members have made valuable recommendations to reform the civil services and public administration, but their key recommendations have been ignored. This has resulted in an inefficient and self-serving bureaucracy which is least bothered to serve the people.
The Modi government has come to power on the agenda of development. It, however, needs to realise that it can fulfil its promise and meet people’s expectations only if public services are efficient and genuinely interested in serving the public. David Osborne and Ted Gaebler point out in their influential book, ‘Reinventing Government’, that if leaders tell their employees to focus on their mission but the systems tell them to follow rules, the employees will listen to the systems and the leaders’ mission will vanish like a mirage. Therefore, what is needed is structural reform in public services, enacting an enforceable ethics code and making civil services accountable. The misconduct on the part of the IPS probationer once again highlights this issue.
Dr Mathur is former director, National Institute of Financial Management, and has held the post of deputy comptroller & auditor general and additional secretary, Government of India. His books include ‘Governance Reform for Vision India’ and ‘Ethics for Governance’.
This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub
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