Competence over seniority: Indian government reforms bidding to give a new face to bureaucracy

Realizing the bureaucracy was a major hindrance to the implementation of reforms and there was no substantive progress in the performance of bureaucracy even after departmental training, the Indian government launched the National Program for Civil Service Capacity Building (NPCSCB), known as Mission Karmayogi, in November 2020

S. Majumder Oct 06, 2021
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Central Secretariat, Delhi

The World Bank has decided to stop the Ease of Doing Business (EODB) survey after a scandal that brought to light the pressure put on the surveyors to boost China’s ratings by changing the methodology. It negated the efficacy of the World Bank Ease of Doing Business survey, one of the important surveys for investment destinations. India climbed from 100 to 63 in rank on EODB among 190 countries between 2016 and 2019. The upward movement was achieved by reducing or scrapping various regulations and procedures and promoting inclusive growth. The global mood perked up amid soaring hopes of India becoming a prized business destination after the upward mobility.

But, in effect, the situation did not change. The governance reforms had unnerved bureaucrats. Public anger mounted as news of deaths from the Covid 19 pandemic dominated the headlines revealing the shortage of oxygen concentrators, and other medical logistics. Inordinate delays in releasing money from the Employees Provident Fund accounts for claimants distressed by the pandemic caused many deaths. Manufacturers continued to grease the palm of government officials  to bypass the more than 6,000 compliances needed to start a business.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi concurred with the public perceptions and vented his ire against the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers in the Lok Sabha, blaming civil servants for making growth hostage. He raised an outcry about officials complicating the regulatory procedures and restoring to red-tapism, instead of keeping in mind the people’s interests. He aired the despair of the millions of hapless, saying “Babus (bureaucrats) will do everything. Because they are IAS, they can run fertilizer factories, chemical factories and even fly planes”.

He asked parliamentarians whether it was judicious to hand over “reins of the nation to the babus”. The Indian Civil Service, which was established in 1858, continued with old-style work culture, without keeping pace with the economic reforms and the social development in the country. Over the last few years, many IAS, Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and other central service officers were compulsorily retired before their age of superannuation.

Bureaucrats unreachable wedded to rules
 
There is a catchphrase.  It is easier to meet the minister than a secretary or a joint secretary. The ministers formulate policies, feeling the nerves of the people. Babus (colloquial for bureaucrats) deliver based on archaic rules. Unlike the ministers, they are not accountable to the people.

Any telephone call to a senior official is picked up by the private secretary. “Boss is too busy”, is the standard response. Any communication seeking clarification on policy or the action taken in case of grievances is either not replied to or the usual reply is “matter has been referred to the concerned department”.  The matter rests at that, and there is no more official monitoring.

The bureaucrats are protected by the Constitution under Article 311. The Article says bureaucrats cannot be removed without an inquiry. Incidentally, the procedures laid down in the inquiry are such that the babus can get away from the accusations of incompetence, red tape and corruption if they are sticklers to rules and procedures. The procedures are designed in such a way that a large number of employees are involved and if they go wrong, no one can be held responsible for the outcome.

Red tape

Even a simple thing is subject to various levels of approval. Any action, even in an emergency, is approved only after the relevant files move from one table to another. Eventually, the significance of emergency is buried. Only the files move, the actual work is seldom done. The scarcity of oxygen concentrators during the Covid pandemic is a case in point

A survey by Lokniti CSDS ( Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) revealed that the majority of the respondents observed it was difficult to get work done at government offices without the right connections or bribes. Most of them expressed their distrust about government offices and preferred going to political parties for getting their work done.

Attempts were made to reform the bureaucracy from time to time. Almost all government departments have their training facilities. But they were hindered by slackening mindsets. In 1986, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched a week’s annual training for government employees. He proposed 30 percent additional remuneration for all the trainees. But, soon the initiative failed.

Mission Karmayogi

Realizing the bureaucracy was a major hindrance to the implementation of reforms and there was no substantive progress in the performance of bureaucracy even after departmental training, the Indian government launched the National Program for Civil Service Capacity Building (NPCSCB), known as Mission Karmayogi, in November 2020. The main objective is to shift from “Rule Base“ to “Role Base” HR Management of civil servants. This will increase the scope for allocating work to competent persons. Today, the highest bureaucrats in economy-related ministries and departments are seldom posted according to their academic backgrounds. An IAS officer can be appointed principal secretary of an important economic ministry despite having studied political science in the undergraduate course.      

DOPT (Department of Personnel and Training) has decided to design and develop FRAC (Framework of Roles, Activities and Competence) for civil servants under the Mission Karmayogi. The main aim is to give a new face to the bureaucracy.

One of the key objectives of the entire process is to test the competence of officials, unlike the present system where seniority counts. “Bureaucracy is the guardian of people’s interest” is the main philosophy of Mission Karmayogi.

(The writer is a former adviser, Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at subratamajumder0604@gmail.com)