The decision to recruit professionals from outside the bureaucracy into senior positions of the Indian Administrative Service could be the greatest reform undertaken by the Narendra Modi government. The IAS is often lauded as the country’s “steel frame”, yet the Indian bureaucracy was adjudged Asia’s most inefficient by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, Hong Kong. This dichotomy encapsulates well the current state of India’s bureaucracy: admirers hold it essential for ensuring the country’s stability while detractors see it as one of the greatest impediments to progress.
Though entry into India’s civil services is highly competitive, perverse incentives, lack of specialisation and political interference have eroded their effectiveness. It is thus imperative to revamp the IAS. Here’s how it can be done.
1) Fast-track promotions for promising young bureaucrats
The lack of incentives for India’s bureaucrats, monetary and in terms of career progression, is a major reason they are averse to disruptive ideas. Unfortunately, for many officers, especially lower down the rung, promotion is mainly decided by seniority rather than performance. A world where Sunder Pichai, an Indian-American, can become the chief executive officer of Google at 43 but probably not qualify as a mid-level joint secretary in India underscores the IAS’s obsolete career advancement process. A fast-track programme for promising young bureaucrats across the civil services will have the dual benefit of encouraging junior officers to take more initiative, and following lateral entry, offer high-performers in non-IAS services access to top positions in the bureaucracy.
2) Offer performance-based incentives tied to district-level outcomes
Recent research shows an IAS officer can exercise significant influence on their district’s social and economic outcomes. This offers an opportunity to design incentives for bureaucrats that are linked to their district’s annual development indicators. Such incentives would tie-in well with the Modi government’s new “360 degree” performance appraisal mechanism for senior bureaucrats, whereby officers are graded based on comprehensive feedback from their superiors, juniors and external stakeholders. There should be a holistic appraisal mechanism for junior bureaucrats as well, in order to enhance their sense of personal responsibility and accountability to society.
3) Set up public administration universities for aspiring and serving civil servants
The government should establish academic centres of excellence, similar to the Indian Institute of Technology or the Indian Institute of Management for public administration. Studying for a master’s in public administration at Columbia University in the Unites States, I was exposed to innovative public policies from around the world such as the Bolsa familia cash transfers in Brazil while also specialising in the energy and environment sectors. Similarly, specialised academic institutions in India can create a large pool of aspiring civil servants with deep knowledge of the country’s political economy, increased domain expertise and improved managerial skills. They can also enable serving bureaucrats attain deeper sectoral knowledge and specialisation, in addition to the general training they receive at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration.
4) Make bureaucratic decision-making less top-down and more transparent
The British designed the Indian Civil Service with the primary aim of maintaining law and order and pursuing state-led development while remaining insulated from the needs of the masses. India must transition away from this obsolete top-down approach by increasing transparency in decision-making, appointments and transfers across the civil services. The goal must be to create an outward-facing IAS whose administrative decisions are open to the public for information and consultation. Since this is likely to be a long-term process, the current government should create a separate department within the civil services, consisting of members of civil society, that focuses on cutting bureaucratic procedures and increasing transparency in administrative decisions.
Increasing competition by recruiting outside professionals should act as a catalyst for transforming the IAS into a merit-based system focusing on tangible outcomes rather than rigid compliance with outdated procedures. The entry of outsiders can also bolster the numerical strength of the IAS, which is facing a shortage of about 1,500 officers. Because it is integral to India’s day-to-day functioning, the civil services have resisted attempts at reform in the past. But the Modi government’s decision to open up the IAS to outsiders should be the first step towards improving the Indian state’s capacity to respond to the needs of its citizens.
Siddharth Goel is an independent public policy consultant who has worked in India, the United States and Europe. He writes about innovative public policy ideas on his blog, Rethinking Public Policy.