The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had promised ‘minimum government and maximum governance’ before the 2014 elections. This was nothing new – claimants to the seat of power in New Delhi have routinely promised a reduction in bureaucracy, accompanied by better governance.
Official figures, however, show just the reverse.
Take the recommendations by the Seventh Central Pay Commission, which decide the compensation for all central government employees for the next decade, and were approved by the Union Cabinet on June 29, 2016. The Commission, which also looked at how officers are appointed to positions of responsibility, found that the governance was heading towards a “chaotic situation”.
A key part of the problem, the report reiterated, was in appointing the right person to the right job. The 40 years between 1975 and 2015 have seen a considerable expansion in the bureaucracy. The Fifth Central Pay Commission noted that there were 45 Secretary-level posts in the government of India in 1972. Today, this figure stands at 92 posts.
But has this increase in the size of the government resulted in better governance? The short answer is no. The long answer lies in the findings and recommendations of a slew of Commissions and Committees set up by different governments in the last couple of decades. Each one of them has reiterated that the best people are not being appointed to the right positions in government. The situation, the Chairman of the Seventh Pay Commission Justice AK Mathur noted, is “not good for the governance and the country”.
“The main cause of the resentment among the services is that over a period of time the Indian Administrative Service has arrogated itself to all power of governance,” Mathur noted in his report. Other services, such as the Indian Police Service or the Indian Forest Service, are simply left out of many senior positions, including those that clearly fall within their domain expertise.
Mathur is not the first to come to this conclusion. The Second Administrative Commission, set up by the United Progressive Alliance government, was of the view that current procedure for selecting officers as joint or additional secretaries to the Government of India “needs to be replaced by a transparent, objective and a fair placement system”. Unfortunately, the Commission’s recommendations went to ministries dominated by IAS officers and were never addressed or implemented.
Mathur and Dr Rathin Roy, a noted economist and member of the Seventh Pay Commission, went a step further, unambiguously pointing out that “senior management and administrative positions in government have evolved considerably and are growing more technical, requiring specific domain knowledge.” Claims of various services to a particular job were “no longer relevant”, they pointed out, adding that key was that the “right person is selected for every job”. All their recommendations in the current report followed this principle.
“We have to understand that jobs in the government have become an entitlement and are no longer seen as public service," Roy said in a telephonic interview. “This needs to be addressed besides recognising that we need specialists.”
Back in 2003, a committee constituted by Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government to evaluate the appraisal system of government officials came up with a stark observation. The chairman of the committee, Lt Gen Surinder Nath, a former chairman of the Union Public Service Commission didn’t mince words when he pointed out that there was “no formal system of eliciting the interests and preferences of officers for particular positions”. Clearly, the system was neither looking at the competency of officials before appointing them, nor was it making an effort to even understand if the officials were interested in the job.
Fixing the problem
“In my view there are some ways to fix this,” Roy said. “We can evolve the American system, where we have people being appointed in rotation, along with the political class that takes power after elections. Or we can ensure that we have an integrated system, where specialists are groomed from the beginning of their careers and continue to take up specialised positions later,” he added.
“Chances are that an officer specialising in horticulture might end up in the Ministry of Defence, while an income tax officer could be posted to a non-revenue function,” Roy said. “The only ministry that has been able to avoid this mismatch to an extent is the Finance Ministry”.
The Kargil Review Committee, set up in 1999 to study the initial failures and reform the management of defence, had proposed an “integrated” Ministry of Defence to ensure faster procurements, quicker decision-making and an infusion of domain expertise in managing the military. This recommendation was never accepted.
A former secretary in the Ministry of Personnel, said that the military is not ready for such a role. The Ministry of Personnel, which also houses the Department of Personnel and Training is the cadre controlling authority of the IAS and responsible for the appointment of officers to different ministries. The recent agitation over the One Rank, One Pension, he said, proved that the military isn’t ready for a role in an integrated defence ministry. “Besides domain expertise, we also need people who can manage the political nature of the job. This needs a lot of negotiation and connections with others, which the military currently lacks,” he added. “The IAS officer scores because they have batch mates across different verticals and are adept at managing the political components of their job.”
The Ministry of Home Affairs is today an exception that has allowed, albeit with great reluctance, domain experts for key positions. Roles such as internal security and counter terrorism, both key responsibilities of the ministry, have begun to see police officials being appointed as joint and additional secretaries. While it is too early to judge whether this has been a success or a failure, the time for domain expertise to shape good governance is long overdue. Unfortunately, a powerful lobby of vested interests has ensured that this critical reform of public administration remains buried in forgotten committee reports.