A crackdown on the steel frame?

Last week, the Union government issued a circular that set new conditions for empanelling mid-level civil servants for appointment as joint secretaries in central ministries. The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) stipulated that the qualifying service period for empanelment of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers as joint secretaries at the Centre would be 16 years.


Even earlier, an IAS officer would usually become eligible for empanelment as a joint secretary at the Centre after 16 years of service. However, in reality, many of them would get empanelled only after 18 years of service. For instance, officers belonging to the batch of 2002 are now getting empanelled to become joint secretaries. The reiteration of empanelment as joint secretary after 16 years is, therefore, reassuring to the IAS officers.


But what may give sleepless nights to many IAS officers is another directive of the ACC contained in the same circular. It stated that not less than two years of experience at the deputy secretary or director level under the Central Staffing Scheme (CSS) would be mandatory for empanelment as joint secretaries at the Centre in respect of IAS officers from the 2007 batch onwards.


The ACC’s decision communicated to the civil servants in an office memorandum on June 18 has largely gone unnoticed. But there is no doubt that the circular will have significant implications for many IAS officers across the country.


Just before the general elections in 2019, the government decided to hire private-sector professionals as joint secretaries at the Centre. It was a small but bold step to get non-IAS experts to work in the government. The process was completed in April 2019, when nine private-sector professionals were hired as joint secretaries in the ministries of finance, commerce, civil aviation, road transport, environment and energy.


Almost a year later, another decision has been taken that would make the journey of an IAS official to the post of a joint secretary at the Centre a little more arduous. For an IAS officer, the post of a joint secretary is almost like a gateway for securing a longish tenure in important positions in central ministries in New Delhi, without the need for going back to the state to which the officer belongs. A five-year stint as joint secretary is usually followed up with a promotion as additional secretary and then as either special secretary or secretary till retirement. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many IAS officers who joined the service after 2006 are not amused by the decision to introduce the new condition.


Most IAS officers prefer to spend the first decade and a half of their tenure in the states because of the relatively better designations, more power and perquisites like housing that are more generous than those they can enjoy at the Centre as a deputy secretary or even as a director. A deputy secretary at the Centre is a joint secretary in the state secretariat or a district magistrate and a director at the Centre is often a special secretary in the state secretariat.


Even while at the Centre, a deputy secretary or a director would not be entitled to an official transport for a pick-up from residence till a few years ago. It was in 2016 that the rules were modified to allow hiring of cars to pick them up from their residence. In February 2020, this facility was extended by another three years in a bid to make the position a bit more attractive and address the shortage of deputy secretaries and directors coming in from states under the CSS.


From a personal point of view also, they prefer to stay in the states for their children to grow up while staying at the same city. Once they complete 16 or 18 years of service, they opt for a post at the Centre as joint secretaries. But now with the new condition for empanelment as a joint secretary, India’s steel frame has to deal with a new situation.


Remember that the IAS is only one of the 37 All India Services or Group-A Services, which take part in the CSS. It was created to meet the Centre’s need for fresh talent at the middle or senior levels in its ministries to help them formulate policy and implement or monitor various programmes with assistance from domain experts.


The idea was to make use of officers from specialised services like the Indian Police Service, Indian Revenue Service, Indian Economic Service, Indian Telecom Service, Indian Audit and Account Service, Indian Forest Service, Central Engineering Service and Indian Statistical Service. But in practice, at least till 2018, the IAS virtually monopolised the process of empanelling officers as joint secretary at the Centre.


The two-year minimum stint as deputy secretary or director at the Centre for all IAS officers before being empanelled as joint secretary may help the government meet its shortage of deputy secretaries and directors. But it is debatable if the move will also help the Centre recruit more non-IAS officers as joint secretary under the CSS and get more domain experts to take charge of policy making and implementation.


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