Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Jawaharlal Nehru once said the Indian Civil Service was
“Neither Indian, nor Civil, nor a Service”. Sardar Patel said the civil service
was the “steel frame of government machinery”. Thankfully, this team of rivals
worked together to create a model for non-elected civil servants that served
India well when the primary task was nation-building. But now that the task has
shifted to poverty reduction, most citizens do not perceive the Indian state as
a high-performance organisation.
As the Indian state responds by finally raising its
performance ambitions for 30 lakh central government and 120 lakh state
government employees, it must recognise that high-performance organisations get
four levers right around human capital: Fresher selection, leadership selection,
performance management and culture.
It must also recognise that changing culture (accepted and
rejected behaviour like punctuality, hard work, corruption, collaboration, etc.)
and performance management (the fear of falling and the hope of rising) will
take five years, but changing how senior roles are staffed is immediately
impactful because personnel is policy. NITI Aayog’s new recruitment rules for
senior people (Additional and Joint Secretary rank) are a good template for
hiring senior technocrats — a more accurate job description than bureaucrat —
but they should be the thin end of a thick wedge to reboot government human
capital on these four fronts.
First, fresher hiring for central government officers in the
IAS, IPS, RBI, etc, is probably better than any private sector management
trainee programme because of the high quality and quantity of applicants, the
UPSC’s institutional integrity, starting compensation, process rigour, etc.
Overall, this lever needs the least reform. However, replicating this
transparency, process and institutional ability to non-officer hiring (85 per
cent of government hiring) and state government hiring (75 per cent of
government employees) could rapidly improve legitimacy, competence and trust.
Second, any organisation whose leadership pipeline depends on
a line (seniority) or a monopoly (only staffed by insiders) cannot be effective;
such leadership selection needs thoughtful design, pathways to top jobs for
young insiders, lateral entry at scale, specialisation opportunities by tenure
and training for insiders. In the US, when a new political CEO takes over, 4,000
technocrats resign. In India, 10 people do. Both 4,000 and 10 are extremes and
the right number is somewhere in-between.
An immediate tweak could be making 25 per cent of all senior
appointments through open advertisements and giving insiders a real shot at
these jobs when they are 45 years old. Third, culture eats structure for
breakfast. The obvious downside of poor role models, excessive political
interference and the lack of accountability in government is poor work culture
around punctuality, hard work, integrity, etc. A more important victim has been
collaboration. The government is organised vertically but important horizontal
problems like urbanisation and industrialisation seem unsolvable because of the
lack of teamwork across departments.
One of the most interesting questions in government today is:
How do you get something done when everybody who matters agrees with you? A
culture of accountability is heavily influenced by structure, the huge overlap
in central ministry mandates creates policy orphans and needs reducing the
number of ministries in the Central government to 20 (from 50-plus right now)
and cutting people with Secretary to Government of India in Delhi rank to 50
(from 200-plus right now). Obviously, role models and narratives are more potent
than rules. The corruption culture change in Delhi is not a child of new laws.
Finally, any organisation that does not punish its poor
performers punishes its high performers. All hierarchies need a pyramid but
currently, almost all officers rise to the top rank unless you hit a senior
officer or your corruption is caught on video. The pyramid becoming a cylinder
is brutal for the motivation of high performers and corrosive to a culture of
performance. It is difficult to measure performance in multi-dimensional senior
government jobs but 95 per cent being ranked outstanding is mathematically
impossible because everybody can’t be above average. Pending a revamp of
appraisal systems, all central and state officer cadres should adopt the
“colonel threshold” of the army under which, if you are not shortlisted from
promotion, you retire at age 50.
The new recruitment rules of NITI Aayog are thoughtful. Their
hiring context is different from large frontline government organisations and
tweaking leadership selection will be ineffective without tackling culture and
performance management. But these rules are interesting because they create a
level playing field for outsiders and insiders and confront issues like
cost-to-government, promotion, equivalence, employment contract format, etc.
Most importantly, their five-year contract, extendable by two years, should
become standard for all senior positions.
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