A civil servant and an expert? Not enough. Govt is looking for leaders

(In the front row from left) Foreign secretary S Jaishankar, Finance Secretary Ashok Lavasa, Revenue Secretary Hasmukh Adhia and Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar at the Civil Services Day 2017 function in New Delhi on Friday
Before 2017 is over, there would be more officers of the central government who would have traded their specialised roles to take over new leadership roles than at any time in the past. 

For instance, even before this summer is over, some of the Indian Administrative Service officers would be learning the challenges of collecting service tax, a job till now reserved for their colleagues in the customs and central excise service; non-railway officers would be poring over the railway budget; and trade negotiations with foreign countries will now draw in officers from outside the Indian Foreign Service. 

The changing roles show a new trend in the working of the government at the senior level: instead of domain expertise, it is the ability to lead and deliver that is becoming important.

This is just the type of role that suits one service the most: the IAS. So it is not surprising that they are taking over most of these new assignments. It also helps that since they predominate at the state level, a leader like Narendra Modi who has come up as a state chief minister would find comfort with them.

Yet, as there is a shortage of IAS officers within the government (23 per cent, according to the department of personnel and training), surprisingly the new job definition is also attracting more ambitious officers from other services to these positions. 

The job requirement is that the candidates have to own up for their deliverables and be willing to lead large teams. It was spelt out recently by Prime Minister Modi. Speaking at the Civil Services Day, Modi said, “A spirit of ownership is essential…The push for reform comes from political leadership but the performance angle is determined by officers.”

“There is a rationalisation of roles happening within the central government,” says ex-IAS Syamal Kumar Sarkar who retired as secretary, department of personnel and training. One of those elements of rationalisation is that officers are being inspected more for their leadership role than their hold over the subjects concerned. At the level of joint secretary and above, a 360-degree approach is being taken to assess the officers. One of the required abilities is that of packaging reforms and selling to the outside world, says Sarkar, now a director at Teri.

A mishmash of services

Narendra Modi
A result of that assessment is that out of the under 300 joint secretaries in various ministries, about a third are now from other services. To get over this shortage, the department of personnel and training has increased the number of entrants into IAS through the civil services examination to 180 in the past four years, from an average of less than 60 through the better part of the last two decades. Simultaneously, the overall intake into all services through the combined civil services examination has risen to 1209 in 2016-17 from an average of less than 500 from 2000 to 2005. For the next year, the projection is 980, “which is subject to further change”, implying this is a base-level projection which will rise. 

The trigger for the larger intake and the stress on performing as an effective leader, according to Vivek Rae, former IAS officer and member of the Seventh Pay Commission, is the greater scrutiny Indian bureaucracy now faces from the world. “The officers have to deliver in an environment where there is additional pressure on the government,” he says. 

He claims that IAS officers have an advantage in this respect since they are trained to handle leadership roles from the time they are recruited. “At the senior level, specialists can be hired from outside the government” to assist decision making, Rae says.

According to Harsha Vardhana Singh, executive director at Brookings India, there are large changes happening within the Indian bureaucracy. Yet to make the changes effective, political support is essential, he says. “While they need to show expertise in their domain, they can show ownership of policies only if the political party in power backstops them”. The Jan Dhan drive, he says, is a good example of such support. Since the Prime Minister pushed it hard, the officers went all out to enroll millions of people into the banking system. Similarly they prefer to be cautious if they have fears of being hauled up. 

Adducing the example of how trade policies are made, Singh, who was at one time India’s permanent representative at WTO in Geneva, says several ministries would have pitched in to frame the policies but only one or at best two officers would finally flag the Indian theme at international meets. “It doesn’t matter from which service those officers arrive as long as they deliver,” he notes. 

He supports Sarkar’s hypothesis that the changes in the bureaucracy are a part of the larger “rationalisation” of bureaucracy that is happening now but says those changes need strong political support to sustain.

The IAS versus the others 

Would it help if a common core of administrators is created, which will do away with current tensions between the IAS and other services in the government? For instance, last year, the direct tax officers almost revolted at the closer scrutiny of their work demanded by the revenue secretary. 

A way out could be by dissolving the time honoured system of cadres at the senior level. The cadre system which began from the late 19th century expanded to its peak by the end of the 20th century. 

Sarkar says it is too early to make a guess of that sort.  At present, a via media is created by the central staffing scheme, which pools in officers from all cadres from where they are selected as joint secretaries for departments, which means the commanding officers do not necessarily come up from the same ranks. “The pressure on the system is clearly mounting as there is less number of all India service officers to recruit from within the pool,” he says. 

Rae, however, feels instead of casting the net wide, it makes sense to post officers who have worked earlier in the department to senior positions in the same departments. It is clearly a nod to the supremacy enjoyed by the IAS fraternity. 

Acknowledging these differences, Sarkar says that it is easier to bring ministries under a single minister than do away with cadres. The ministries of coal, mines, power and renewable energy have come under one minister and there are indications that rail and road transport could come under one minister too. 

To ensure congruent decision- making there is a need to install effective leaders and make specialists report to them, cutting across departments. 

It is a formidable task. Singh gives the example of how changes like the shifting of the railway budget to the finance ministry would have been unpopular among the officers. 

The one alternative, appointing people from outside, is still a trickle though. In April, the government-run India Post Payments Bank appointed IBRD finance sector specialist Mahadevan Balakrishnan as MD & CEO. No one from the Indian Postal Service was found good enough to assume the role.

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