Civil Services: Who Have They Really Served
This piece is an attempt to highlight the pre-existing inefficiencies and discuss the fault lines that exist within the bureaucratic framework and the behavioural shelf of its constituents, with certain reformatory indications attached in the epilogue, emphasizing the Indian experience.
The Constituent Assembly prudently provided for apolitical and integrated civil services in Part XIV of the Constitution, along with the necessary protection for service operations. These requirements apply not just to the union government, but also the states. The creation of All India Services (AIS) with recruitment based on all India competitive examinations and dual control by the centre and the states was one of the provisions of the Constitution (Article 312) that was hotly debated and faced considerable opposition, particularly from provincial governments. The AIS was supposed to be able to function independently, openly, objectively, and courageously as a result of this constitutional safeguard. Unfortunately, political influence, administrative complacency and professional incompetency have significantly weakened the service's professional coherence.
Civil Service, A Merchandised Celebration.
Every country has an institution of professional civil services, but nowhere are the members of the system, celebrated like in India. The State and the public themselves haven’t overcome the colonial legacy of considering the civil service as the grandest of professions, where professionals actually work at the whims of the legislators. This has serious repercussions.
Despite the dire grumbling and frequent, recurring complaints about the difficulty of dealing with the state machinery, in the post-independence experience of 75 years, the popular culture of India, endure pedestalizing the very people responsible for their ordeals. Dissatisfaction outpouring could largely be targeted at the temporary executive by voting them out of office every five years here and then. But the 'sanctity' of Civil Servants remains untouched, undeterred.
Ordinary folks, don’t encourage themselves or their children to join politics more often which is viewed as the trajected filthy domain of the highly privileged and the financially loaded. But the profession of permanent executives, the civil services are most sought after for the very reason of being capable to act as a direct bridge to nobility. People are willing to compete in the pool of intense competition with almost a million other aspirants, every consecutive year, in hope of securing those privileges, more than securing the society. For reference in 2021 CSE, a total of 10,93,984 candidates applied for the test, out of which a mere 685 ended up getting recommendations for induction into various services.
There are valid reasons to hold a favourable impression of the civil service from an aspirant's perspective. For starters, applicants are selected based on competence after an open test and interview. In the civil service, unlike in politics, one cannot inherit a position. Then there's the assurance of a job that comes with being admitted. Unless the civil servants commit a grave transgression, they are guaranteed security for life and regular, time-bound promotions, ensuring that everyone finishes at the top, regardless of performance. Which boomerangs the whole discourse to the question with which we commenced: who does the profession really serve, the larger mass, or the people who are professing it? The Indian civil service's apparent virtues conceal its flaws.
Energy Inappropriately Channelled
The discord lying within the Civil services begins with the intrinsic practice of recruiting officers often of distant origins, to directly supervise the local force and administrative machinery. The discipline goes well with the spirit of dispersing the federal agents to strengthen the confederate fabric of the country. On the principled front, it steadily leads to confrontations among the different levels of civil servants. A newly recruited (Group A) officer meant to regulate the order of his/her designated area who is unfamiliar with the region is repeatedly ascertained to be ill-equipped to dispense the conduct, with their ignorance. The limited insights one gains during the time of preparation and training are never sufficient enough to attend to the people and resolve their day-to-day grievances.
Ultimately, 'senior' civil servants resort to the experience of the local state cadre to assist them, relying on the deputies and subsequent additional associates largely to carry out the management and maintenance at the primary stage of the stint. The duration spent at the groundwork inspectional tier is nevertheless considered momentary in the decades-long career of officers, hence much due review and reflection to perform better aren't levied.
This raises a pertinent question on the very pursuit of appointing directly recruited officers at district and sub-district grade commands. The tenure of these professionals instead of aiming at delivering the desired promising results and prosperity to the people is rather worn on coping around and saving their portrait. Again the metrics and abilities that got the chosen ones the prerogative to serve the billions, are utilised to cover the inefficiencies and not on devoting the profession to serve its purpose.
The Coloniality In Civil Services
The Indian Civil servants would never refrain from referring to themselves as the ‘steel frame’ of the state machinery. Little do they realise that when Former British Prime Minister Lloyd George had spoken of the ‘steel frame’, he mentioned it as the apparatus of perpetuating the British Empire. This steel frame was supposed to have no concern for India and Indians, unlike what, the contemporary service is expected to hold. On February 26, 1924, addressing the House of Lords, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston clearly stated, “The British Raj in India will fade away and disappear unless you have a devoted Civil Service to support it.”
Given the tendencies of the leadership, who eventually came to hold power, irrespective of the struggle behind, the state no matter how nascent, treads on the trajectory of turning imperialistic, against its subjects. Here the role of bureaucracy becomes essential, given the Indian context, the Civil Services of independent India has continued to retain its character of serving the state over the people.
Apart from the direct indulgence in routine administration, the strata where the contribution of Civil services is supposed to be analysed is at the public policy level. They must be judged by what they have delivered over the decades in terms of introducing better administrative practices, and initiatives or imparting superior domain knowledge to the nation. The million-dollar question is what the civil service, has contributed in the 165 years of its existence, which could only have been arguably being delivered by them and not by others. The realization is astonishing, perhaps. In essence, the Indian administration still functions very much the same way it functioned 165 years ago. Its resources and terminologies may have changed, but its consciousness and spirit remain in consonance with its original construct.
Generalization And Specialization
To understand the impeding factors in the way of better harnessing the grit of civil servants, former RBI Governor D. Subbarao’s remarks are crucial.
“Young recruits come in with sharp minds and full of enthusiasm... but soon they become cogs in the wheels of complacency and acquiescence, turn lazy and cynical, and worse, lose their moral compass.” As a result, “there is no motivation for officers to upgrade their knowledge and skills.”
Image Courtesy: Mint
The statement clearly illustrates that ceasing avenues of improvement in the existing officers leads to deterioration of state machinery and creates cracks for laxity to creep in, rendering the services of civil servants unutilized and under-exploited to their extent.
What is essentially holding the Civil Services back, from serving the people with utmost capacity are its own structural and functional inefficiencies, the ever-transitioning nature of the Indian economy has made it necessary to hire individuals who are already specialized in a variety of fields or at least willing to come out of their complacent state to learn more in any particular field they wish to serve with better expertise. Officers who spend their initial years as generalists, adopting such an approach, can acquire specialist domain knowledge at a later point of time in their careers. What the country right now needs is a mixture of specialists and generalists.
With rapidly advancing technology and high levels of specialisation in every domain, it is burdensome for the government to afford to employ pure generalists in positions that need specialised knowledge. The influx of professionals from the public sector to the private sector, and vice versa, is also a practice that, if adopted, would make civil service roles more appealing, transforming them into new economy jobs. This may increase the likelihood of competition leaking even more insidiously into the civil service than it already has. Perhaps, this will at the very least assist in enforcing responsibility and will be good in the long term.
Realising this requirement, the government has made suitable provisions for the induction of industry specialists into the offices of joint secretaries through lateral entries in numerous departments, but this activity is not far from the question of inclusivity, it is extremely and equally crucial to maintain efficiency along with ensuring representation and inclusive hiring at all levels of bureaucracy to make ensure the formation of an all-encompassing framework.
Baits Not Incentives
Cultivating a committed and effective civil service involves credence and impartial hiring, which is based on the lack of political preference, open competition, and selection by a competent body. Subsequently, important elements in meritocracy and the motivation of officers are the avenues for promotion, recognition and reward for the display of determination. Inter-sector mobility, placement on appropriate fronts and the scope for skill upgrading and self-improvement also get unlocked when, the right balance between the professional and profession is struck, through the autonomous unfolding of the trajectory of their careers.
A speculative practice that postulates the prospects of career growth and could be manipulated, and infringed with the intent to direct the servitude of officers is manhandling the promotion procedure to favour or disfavour certain individuals at the cost of others. with its higher emoluments and ability to enhance the status, promotions endure driving motivations of the officials serving. Any intervention, that goes unconventional to the accepted convention of promoting civil servants, is direct interference aimed at situating people in significant positions, programmed with the directive to serve the patron more than the people they are meant to.
There exist myriads of approaches to devise the procedure to endow promotions fairly, one such reform that could minimize the possibility of such unjust interference of political actors exploiting promotions for their vested leverage could be creating and accounting for an entirely new body to look after and carry out promotions and transfers on pre-determined, basis. Its formation could be an attempt at ensuring that the task is getting done following the spirit of the service. It’ll address the major area of concern that is defining the relationship between the bureaucracy and the political executive.
The tendency of elected executives to prefer loyalty over efficiency in selecting civil servants for higher posts impacts their morale and commitment to work. As observed by Sardar Vallabhai Patel, civil servants should provide unprejudiced, logical and pragmatic recommendations to the political executive in policy formulation. An impartial Civil Services Board can look after all the aspects related to promotions, transfers, postings and suspensions.
For instance, in countries like Singapore, they consistently promote people entirely according to competence and it is common to see comparatively younger officers supersede more experienced, but less efficient, officers. Malaysia adopted a system of promotion and annual salary progression determined upon a new performance appraisal and remuneration system. An autonomous body could be established that can look into the matters of transfers and promotion of Civil servants. The move could help in mitigating the political thrust on the careers of civil servants from their elected superiors. As there would be a mutually respectful relationship between the political officeholders and the cadre for making sure good governance, the independent board can act as a platform to delink civil service structural issues from political patronage. An agreed demarcation line can be drawn between the two with the establishment of such a board. The move could back and facilitate the intent of the services better, freeing the officers to realise and getting back to tread on the path of designation, in service of the nation and its people.
The gulf between the servants and society, for years, has been legitimized on the premise of laudatory and privilege bestowing for the display of merit claims, here the significance of exploiting the pedestalization to overview the general to better diagnose the grievances and remedying is supposed to be the duty of the person privileged, rather than leveraging the lag to advance oneself in realms of securing illegitimate accumulations of wealth, exclusive gains and scarce capitals for themselves.
Though more than a million aspirants appear for the Civil Services Examination of the country, little time they take to disappear, when it is their turn to serve the civil society. The Framework on which the aspiration of 1.3 billion people situates is plagued by the termites of interferences, inefficiencies and complacencies, and if the structure is a metal one, as they like it to claim, then the ‘steel frame’ is rusted. The servitude and the responsibilities have diverged frequently from the entitled masses to the influential agents and selves, the task to direct the civil services back on the trajectory would be a gruesome chore and the inability to do the same would be a matter of grave concern for the nation for years to come.
By Arpit Rituraj
Arpit Rituraj is a first-year student of history and political science at Hindu College. You’ll find him clicking and praising dogs and criticizing everything else. If you get to visit around anytime.