The year end meeting with Secretaries ‘was aimed at kick-starting the process of change in official attitudes’ for better governance.
2015 has been an “Annus Horribilis” for the Bharatiya Janata Party, with the party losing ground in key states, including to the often-derided Congress. However, officials concerned with major aspects of the governance mechanism say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is confident that “within 2016, the quality of administration will increase to a level such that negativity (about the performance of his team) will mute”. The year-end meeting with Secretaries to Government “was aimed at kick-starting the process of change in the official attitudes needed for success” towards better governance, and “several more interactions are planned in the New Year”. They say that 2016 will be the “Year of Governance Reform” so far as the Modi government is concerned, “beginning a period of 21st century administration in place of the present colonial model, which dates back to the 19th century, and has not been replaced so far”. Since taking office on 26 May 2014, officials say that PM Modi has spent “several hours each day studying the ways in which the all-India administrative machinery has been functioning and how it can be transformed”, and according to a key official, “is now ready with a comprehensive road map for change”. According to these sources, major elements in PM Modi’s plan include:
(a) The requirement that competence, and not seniority, be made important for career advancement. In particular, “younger officials in their late 40s or early 50s be placed in positions which formerly were the preserve of those just about to retire from service”. Such officials, being close to superannuation, “seldom have any interest other than serving out the remainder of their term without incident”, and are in many instances hostile to innovation and even to suggestions from their juniors “in a bureaucratic culture in which seniority is a fetish”. Examples of the promotion of relatively younger officers to key slots are that of the Director of the SPG and the Scientific Advisor to the Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister), these officials point out. Prime Minister Modi has himself been very quiet in public about such moves, preferring to “let results speak for themselves” in such matters.
(b) Rather than continue with a virtual caste system within the government machinery, in which the IAS almost totally monopolises the top positions, “an effort has been made to discover talent from other services as well”, so that the pool from which high-level recruitments get made is expanded to cover all the Central services. At present, the IAS has regarded top posts across the government as its right, with the IPS an Also Ran in the race for prize posts. Other (i.e. non-IAS, IFS, IPS) Central services are, in effect, considered below the IAS, which itself is given precedence over the IPS, with state-level administrative services forming a still lower tier. Thus far, appointments have been made almost completely in accordance with this informal caste hierarchy. However, “since Modi took charge, this has changed”. As part of the change, “a Railways officer has been made CMD of Air India, while an IPS officer is now head of the Enforcement Directorate, with another being appointed envoy to Saudi Arabia”. The focus will be on “talent that can deliver results and are not just good at drafting statements”. The effort will be to “set verifiable benchmarks for performance and reward or punish based on outcomes”, the officers claimed.
(c) Officials predict that a concerted drive will take place to rectify a major anomaly in the pay structure, which is that “at the lowest level, the khalasi, driver and peon earn, on an average, four times the cost to company (CTC) of their counterparts in the private sector”, while at the top, “the Cabinet Secretary earns less than 10% of what the CEO of even a medium-sized private company does”. A similar disproportionality is present in the emoluments of CEOs of public and private enterprises. Such an inverted pyramid results in the best minds opting for the private sector, sometimes in mid-career. “A stage has been reached where honest officers almost cannot afford to work in government, and only the corrupt find the going easy to bring up their families”, a senior official pointed out, adding that “96% of the salary bill of the government goes towards the bottom posts, whereas what counts is quality and motivation at the decision-making levels at the top”.
(d) Measures are under consideration which would decentralise the recruitment of personnel and manage their careers, something which has been the monopoly of the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT). Such over-concentration of powers within the DOPT has made “appointments, promotions and other decisions slow and unimaginative”, thereby leading to frequent recourse to the courts by disgruntled officials. Some officials are of the view that “the time has come to give the ministries as well as the state governments the power to recruit and dismiss officials”, keeping in view local conditions, with the DOPT playing the ombudsman role.
(e) When the President of India has a term of only five years and even Prime Minister Modi will need to go before the people after five years for renewal of his mandate, officials in favour of reform say that the colonial-era system of lifetime employment of civilian officials makes no sense. They say that the same system as present in the armed forces should get extended to the civilian side, with automatic promotions being abolished and laggards asked to quit. There is even a view that all officials should automatically go on contract mode after reaching a particular level of seniority, and have their performance reviewed in a manner far more comprehensive and objective than is the norm under the colonial model, with non-performers shown the door.
(f) A system of induction of outside talent into different levels of the administration may be introduced during the year, so that “those with domain expertise are involved along with generalists in the formulation and implementation of policy”. 25% of posts should be blocked for those from the private sector, think-tanks and universities, “as is the case in advanced countries”. Also, “career bureaucrats ought to be given the option of three- or five-year stints in private entities as well as universities”. They say that the UGC needs to revise its norms so as to ensure that “work experience in specialist fields be given the same weightage in teaching posts as pedagogy”, so that “officials can get inducted as professors in order to ensure that students have a better knowledge of real life situations so as to equip them for actual rather than textbook situations”.
Critics of Prime Minister Modi claim that he has yet to promote transparency in the functioning of government, by giving access to the processes through which decisions get taken. However, these officials say that the Prime Minister’s drive to digitalise more and more aspects of government functioning promotes transparency. They say that Modi is “pushing hard to ensure that internet access be increased to cover the entire population and that speeds be raised” from the present very slow levels. They say that the Prime Minister wishes to see that a day comes when citizens can get work done involving government departments, “entirely online”, so that the hassles of going to government offices and facing unresponsive (or corrupt) officials be reduced, and that “a big push has been planned during 2016-17 in internet connectivity and usage in governmental processes”.
However, even those officials in favour of reforms seem to be less than enthusiastic about the need for better transparency, so that the public becomes aware of the processes of government and how decisions affecting them have been arrived at. Clearly, it will be an uphill task for Prime Minister Modi to convince the bureaucracy that efficiency and integrity can only be secured through a much higher level of transparency than has been the case with the colonial model of governance continued and expanded by Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors since 1947. The RTI has been moribund since 2012, the year when key officials say Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “quietly sought to change course on the legislation and return to opaque governance”. The performance of the NDA-appointed CIC (Chief Information Commissioner) and his colleagues has thus far been underwhelming, while as yet, pre-poll promises of release of government records have been replaced in many instances by a defence of secrecy, including in matters that are more a half-century and more distant from the present.
According to the officials spoken to, “Prime Minister Modi places a high premium on competence and on delivery of results” and that it is this quality that is sought after, within both the specialist as well as generalist officers. “The solution is the replacement of status quoists with change agents”, an official said, adding that “what counts in the field is competence and adaptability, rather than a brainless adherence to precedent and seniority”, colonial-era practices that are in danger of “corroding even the armed forces”, these sources pointed out. Over the next year, “a conscious embedding of competent officers within key ministries will take place”. Also, “the meandering journey of files will be shortened so that decisions take place not in years or even in months, but in weeks, as in other countries”. Officials in favour of reform add that overall there is optimism that during 2016 itself, Prime Minister Modi will deliver on his promise of transformative administration.
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