No worthwhile change is beyond reproach. Any change will have supporters and detractors with truth in both the arguments. Such a discussion preceding major policy changes has constructive value while reactions after a decision is taken are often voices in the wilderness. These thoughts surfaced while reading about the notification issued by the Department of Personnel and Training inviting applications from ‘outstanding individuals’ to the post of joint secretaries to serve in 10 selected departments in the central government. The Centre has, no doubt, its rationale behind this decision with far-reaching consequences.
What might have prompted such a major deviation from the prevailing system? Firstly, it seems the government feels the need for professionalism, ideas and talents from outside. It seems the sole dependence on the IAS is neither desirable nor sufficient. It is being argued that the IAS cannot claim to have expertise in all emerging areas. Admittedly, the government’s role and activities are becoming increasingly complex in a competitive world. Old methods of governance, decision making and service delivery have to give way to innovative and efficient methods. It is felt the government should be able to perform as efficiently as the private sector. So this move emerges as a valid solution.
It could be further argued that this is not the first time non-IAS personnel are allowed into the bureaucracy. Specialised departments like Space and Atomic Energy always had non-IAS experts as secretaries. However, they were all ex-officio assignments and those who served as secretaries were outstanding people in their respective fields. Besides this, several ministries hire the services of experts as advisers or consultants. But the present idea of appointing joint secretaries on contract for a limited period of three to five years is quite ominous in its approach, presumptions and consequences.
In a short span of five years, will a new appointee be able to make any remarkable changes within the existing context? The very checks and balances in bureaucracy and the overall procedural discipline in the government that have inhibited even the most enterprising civil servants could be equally appalling and insurmountable to the new joint secretaries. If all the procedural rigour will be relaxed for attaining results, then it could be argued that such luxury should have been given to the existing officers. Any sincere effort in galvanising the civil services to deliver better results should begin with the deconstruction of the manual of office procedures and such guiding instructions that have become a millstone around the bureaucracy over the years. No genuine effort has so far been made to unshackle the services from the procedural corpulence and inbuilt fear of decision making.
Political impartiality and fairness are the core values of the civil services. Elected governments have a lifespan of five years but the administration is a continuum. The services were conceptualised as the steel frame to hold it all together. There could be political crises and uncertainties, but the steel frame is mandated to carry on the core activities of the government. The professional competence of the IAS and its ability to adapt to situations has been proven time and again. The 20 years of service that an IAS officer has before being selected as a joint secretary cannot be dismissed as worthless. The not-so-veiled message that the new move sends to the IAS fraternity is that the government is disenchanted with the bureaucrats’ contribution and capabilities. It will have a numbing effect on the officers spread across this country who have galvanised development administration and relief operations in remote places. It will further discourage IAS aspirants and dissuade the brilliant among them from joining the services.
As per the notification, joint secretaries are required in the areas of revenue, financial services, economic affairs, commerce and civil aviation, agriculture and cooperation, highways and shipping and environment and climate change. What has been overlooked is that among the IAS officers recruited by UPSC—through a rigorous selection process— there are young people from diverse backgrounds. It would have been far more sustainable and positive if the cadre management and Human Resource Development Policy were redrawn to spot officers with specialised backgrounds and train them in their respective domains. That would have been more reassuring to the IAS fraternity, who should not have been discouraged for the benefit of 10 new ‘outstanding individuals’. Nobody would have objected if they were recruited as consultants and given powers. But selecting directly from among the applicants and posting them as regular joint secretaries belittles the impeccable selection process of the UPSC. Then there is the risk of even the fairest selection process being seen as political patronage. The government risks the allegation of tinkering with the political neutrality of the higher civil services of the country.
Statesmanship is all about seeing the larger picture rather than getting engrossed in the immediate and temporary gains. The larger picture that emerges is disturbing and tragic. The immediate advantages are admittedly insignificant in comparison with the long-term damage. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, while addressing the Constituent Assembly on the subject of All India Services said: “An efficient, disciplined and contented service assured of its prospects as a result of diligent and honest work is a sine qua non of sound administration under a democratic regime … The service must be above party and we should ensure that political considerations, either in recruitment or in its discipline and control are reduced to the minimum.”
Former Chief Secretary to Government of Kerala and former Vice Chancellor of Malayalam University