Civil Services Fit For The Future!
Going beyond agriculture on which I regularly write for this magazine, this time I want to delve into the new architecture and ecosystem of the civil services to make them more relevant for the current and future requirements of the country. Your columnist has been roped in as a moderator for a discussion on Civil Services Fit for the Future- on the occasion of the eighth civil services day, 2013 at New Delhi.
The focus on ‘eighth’ is important, for those of us who have put in nearly three decades in the civil service; the civil services day is still a bit of a novelty. One was used to organizing so many ‘days’ on subjects as variegated as AIDS awareness to Panchayat raj to Food Day to Care for the Elderly and a day for each of the uniformed forces that a day dedicated to the civil services was looked at with some apprehension (bordering on skepticism) and last year your columnist had also raised the point in the plenary session: why 21st April? The Cabinet Secretary Ajeet Seth explained that it was on 21st April 1947 that Sardar Patel had addressed the first batch of the IAS at Metcalfe House (the training centre of the IAS ) , and in a way it marked the formal commencement of the IAS. His stirring words which are prominently displayed in the academy always ring a bell: “You will not have a united India, unless you have a civil service which expresses its mind without fear….” So in a way, the civil service has been successful because contrary to what the skeptics felt at that time, India’s unity and integrity have become more salient over the years. Through trade and commerce, politics and Bollywood, cricket, mobile networks and competitive exams and development interventions like NREGA, Kisan Credit cards and Mission Mode programmes in various sectors the unity and integrity of the country is now accepted almost as an axiom.
And yet! The refrain is that we could have done much more. We could have, provided there was a clear direction about what we want. Patel wanted a united India, and we have a united India. We were clear about the liberation of Bangladesh, and the need to hold on to Kargill. We are committed to free and fair elections. We wanted a polio free India. We want the Kumbh mela to be organized to perfection. We usually succeed. In other words, where there is a political consensus and clear direction, we succeed. The failures of administration are usually failures emanating our of a fractured polity and breakdown of political consensus, and there is not much that the civil service can do, except ensure that at least the form and the format are retained. However, there are several interventions which the civil services can make which will be supported by almost all political parties, and we need to dwell on those which lead to consensus rather than contestation.
This brings us to the subject for the panel discussion: how do we become fit for the future? Can we anticipate the changes that pan Indian markets, globalization, technology, entrepreneurship demography, urbanization, and rising aspirations will usher for our country?
Let’s take pan Indian markets and globalization in the first instance, as both are connected. There is a pan Indian market for skilled workers from nurses to reefer van operators to plumbers to security and hospitality staff. This movement is not limited to India and there is movement to every nook and corner of the globe- thereby raising wage rates and expectations. Migrant workers need identity – UID, passport, PIO card and insurance services: can we ensure that these become hassle free. Can passports be issued on the basis of an affidavit, rather than police verification as the numbers applying for passport will increase manifold, and our system is not geared to such numbers. Can we also think of offering Green Cards or Work Permits to economic immigrants from SAARC (Bangladesh and Nepal) who would like to move to India as wage rates are better here? Can we look at investments in the border districts of these countries?
Now let’s take a look at technology. Given our status as an IT superpower and cheapest mobile services in the world, why are we still continuing with manual procedures for a host of applications ranging from crop forecasting to land mutations and property transactions? Can we not set ourselves a target of ensuring that by the end of this Plan period, these interventions will be rolled out successfully which will make a world of difference to lives of people. Yes, there could be resistance from vested interests about registering property transactions on the net as it will make the property market transparent but that’s what we should be trying. Technology can provide access to financial inclusion like never before, and along with good motorable roads, it can help transform rural landscapes.
If technology can be linked to entrepreneurship, especially in the rural areas and smaller towns, it can create a virtuous cycle creating rural livelihoods and incomes. How can we as civil servants support this process pro-actively? By creating rural infrastructure, skill development and facilitating the establishment of enterprises which optimize the use of local resources.
India is at the threshold of reaping the demographic dividend. How do we leverage this? How do we reach out to the younger generation? How do we mainstream twitter, face book and YouTube? This also means that rather than focus on publications and newspaper ads and special supplements, we should communicate directly. This is going to be a major challenge for the political class as their traditional role of ‘consolidating’ and ‘articulating demands’ does not need a political party, or politician. Our policies will also have to be oriented to the aspirations of the younger people. Lifetime employment, zero risk taking and subservience or blind loyalty to an individual or organization will not cut much ice with the youth of today! They are also not willing to come to approach administration as supplicants because they feel that public service delivery on schedule is a matter of right, rather than favour! The younger generation will also undertake many more transactions on the mobile and the net, and this will mean that the plethora of forms will have to make way to net friendly solutions.
Last but not the least is the trend of urbanisation. Over the next decade, if not earlier, at least half the states will have more than fifty per cent of their population living in the urban areas- which will call for an entirely different set of skills and administrative structures. The DM centric model will have to give way to Police and Municipal Commissioners: and the heads of the urban transport and housing services will have even greater salience in the lives of people. Politicians will find it far more difficult to mobilize people on issues they think are important- but people will come together to ‘protest’, or ‘celebrate’ events/occasions which move them.
With this background, let me share the main points made in the panel discussion: Civil Services—Fit for the Future. The panelists included External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Planning Commission members Arun Maira and BK Chaturvedi and the doyen of culture and tourism sector in the country, SK Mishra. Prior to this, the knowledge partner had made a presentation on the issues that affected civil services recruitment, induction and post induction training, postings and transfers, political interference and patronage, and the ability of the political executive to affect the career of the civil servant.
Mr Salman Khurshid did not mince any words in stating that more than the civil services; it was the political executive which had let the country down. Entry into politics was becoming tougher, and survival as one even more difficult. Adversarial politics made it impossible for anyone to accept an honest mistake. Politicians and bureaucrats loved playing blame game without understanding that the rules and the stakes were different. Politicians would prefer bureaucrats who ‘stretched rules’, and bureaucrats like politicians who played by the book.
Mr Arun Maira said that civil services had not been able to keep pace with the changes in society, economy and polity. The ability to translate ‘political will’ into action on the ground needed a new, flatter architecture which the existing hierarchies could not comprehend. He shared the three scenarios built by the Planning Commission high growth, business as usual, and a breakdown in consensus. High growth required political parties, corporate, civil services, academia, media and civil society organizations to take a longer term, inclusive and sustainable view on utilizing the human and natural resources of the country. This was easier said than done. Thus extraction of mineral resources had to go hand in hand with respect for ecology, livelihoods and human rights- and this called for consensus, mutual respect and a wider span to place different options in perspective. He recommended horizontal leadership for consensus building in the larger civic space. The civil services, as they were presently structured were not capable of leading this process of bringing different views together. This required a complete structural revamp with external professional help, for the civil services were not capable of reinventing themselves for the new role expected of them.
After such sobering thoughts, Mr. BK Chaturvedi gave (the required) positive strokes! The GDP was growing faster than ever before, and the trends for literacy, health, nutrition and urbanization were better than ever before! There were of course questions of infrastructure, especially with regard to energy and water, which was leading to social and political tension, but these, could be addressed by investments in technology and public systems. Good governance at all levels from the panchayats to the government of India called for a younger and fitter civil service, and he held forth on the need to introduce changes in the recruitment, training and skill development needs of the officers. Not only had they to be tech-savvy, they needed to have ethical values of a very high order and the ability to design and implement systems that reduced discretion, and made transactions with government more transparent. He pitched for lateral entry on the ground that ministries required specialized and technical skills.
Mr SK Mishra spoke with passion about the civil servants primary task being one of implementing ideas on the ground. While it was for the political executive to take the final decision, and give the ‘go-ahead’, it was the civil servants job to present alternate scenarios, capture (global) trends and steer governance while retaining absolute personal integrity. Roles were important- both were different, but when a synergy was created, the results were truly outstanding. He wanted officers to develop their own areas of expertise even while retaining the broader picture, and mentor younger officers to do their best!
The discussions that followed were very interesting. Officers wanted to know the reasons for government continuing with the plethora of rules which were set out by the colonial masters to ‘control’ natives. What was the need to have so many ‘layers’ in administration? Why were we focusing on procedure, rather than on Risk controls? If L1 was the sole criterion, then ‘quest for excellence’ may as well be removed from the Fundamental Duties (Article 51A)? In any case, the focus today was on process based accountability, rather focus on outcomes. Why had the respect for ‘rule of law’ disappeared? Was there any focus on HR in government? How do we define fitness in the civil service? Citizen’s charter is fine, but in a scenario where political executive felt threatened by ‘popular officers’, who will judge performance? How is popular perception created by the media? And why is it that even though most members of the civil services are brilliant individuals, they found it difficult to work as a team?
No easy answers. A general agreement on the fact that things need to change, that they need to change much faster, but in the end the specifics are left to be pondered over, and perhaps debated on the next Civil Services day. And till then, one may as well recite Shakespeare’s famous lines in Macbeth:
Out, out brief candle,
Life is but a passing shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets its hour on stage
And then is heard no more,
Life is a tale,
Sung by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)