Opinion

Civil Services Day: Is India’s steel frame really rusted?

Contrary to popular perception, bureaucracy isn’t all about incompetence and corruption.

After Lord William Cecil was made her secretary, Queen Elizabeth I advised him thus, “This judgement I have of you that you will not be corrupted by any manner of gift, and that you will be faithful to the state and that without respect of my private will you will give me that counsel which you think best.”

Thus was born the concept of an unbiased, disinterested and committed civil servant. Over four hundred years on, it remains the guiding principle of civil services in many countries of the world, including India.

The Indian administrative system was founded by the British East India Company. Although the company’s officers were primarily tasked to look after and further its commercial interests, they did ensure some system of governance and justice to the people under their control.

In the British administrative system, based on the recognition of the importance of revenue and magisterial authority, the civil servant, aided by a finely evolved legal system, strove without temptation of reward to administer a foreign people in the name of God and country, or so he was supposed to. In The Men who ruled India, Philip Mason described a quintessential British civil servant thus: “In the public Character, whatever Calumny and Detraction may say to the Contrary, he is minutely just, inflexibly upright and I believe no Public Service in the whole world can evince more integrity.”

The civil servants spread out, imposing law and order in a land prone to feudal excesses and everyday anarchy. The power of the civil service was enhanced when, in 1798, Governor General Lord Wellesley reconstituted his office and created the post of chief secretary, who was vested with the authority to rearrange different departments of the government as he deemed best for “proper conduct” of business. The first chief secretary, George Hilaro Barlow, did not administer each department, but by virtue of his general authority and acting as he did on behalf of the governor general he was held to be in overall charge of the administration. This system continued until power was transferred from the British East India Company to the British Crown in the wake of the First War of Independence in 1858.

“Be that as it may, the fact is that the permanent civil service provides the steel frame that holds this country together. These men and women go to distant parts of the country and put in place systems for governance, and law and order. They represent the face of the government to the citizens of the country.”  

Since administering India was now the direct responsibility of the British parliament, the administrative machinery put in place by the company was formalised as the Indian Civil Service, which was headed by the Secretary of State for India, a minister in the British cabinet.

The governor general, and later Viceroy, became the direct representative of the Crown in India and was given authority over all civil and military affairs.

In the provinces, the governors were given extensive powers for administration, and under them, the office of the chief secretary came to enjoy a pivotal position. As the author Philip Woodruff observed: “The Chief Secretary was the channel through whom the orders of the government were conveyed to the officers. He was traditionally the source of posting (orders of officers); to most district officers, he was, in fact, the government.”

After Independence in 1947, the Indian government, learning the complexities of governing a vast and diverse nation, modified the hierarchies in the administrative set-up, drafted new rules and procedures, and reengineered processes to ensure it best served the interests of the people. The Indian Civil Service thus became the Indian Administrative Service.

Selected on the principle of competition and merit, the young officers of the Indian Administrative Service became the face of the government and worked to carry out its developmental programmes while ensuring peace and tranquility.

Seventy years on, though, the question is being asked whether this apparatus set in place just after Independence, and based on the colonial systems of administration, is still relevant. The bureaucracy is held as being primarily responsible for many of the ills plaguing this country. Be that as it may, the fact is that the permanent civil service provides the steel frame that holds this country together. These men and women go to distant parts of the country and put in place systems for governance, and law and order. They represent the face of the government to the citizens of the country. As they grow in experience and seniority, they are called upon to help in policy-making and supervision. They provide sage advice to their political masters, are rarely obtrusive and often work in anonymity. It would not be wrong to say that the fabric of governance hangs on their shoulders. Of course, there are some people in the service who sully the image of all civil servants.

Governing a country as vast and diverse as India is maddeningly complex. Both our political leadership and bureaucracy, therefore, must be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of different sections of the society. Everyday governance is a tedious task; it is slow, backbreaking and endless as any assistant engineer or district collector will testify.

It is to the credit of our civil servants that despite their many failings – especially in ensuring delivery of services at the last mile – they keep this country going. This Civil Services Day on April 21, let’s celebrate their spirit and determination.

CK Mathew is former chief secretary of Rajasthan. He heads the Public Policy Research Group at Public Affairs Centre, a think tank based out of Bangalore.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.