Thursday, August 3, 2017
Taming of The Bureaucracy - A Tectonic Change
Silently yet determinedly in the last two years, the shape of the steel frame has been getting moulded at the Government of India level. ‘How Bharatiya has been the Indian Bureaucracy,’ ever since the Modi government was formed.
My initial feeling was that the changes brought about are at best piece-meal. It persisted until I got first-hand taste of the silent yet titanic change a few days back when I saw the empanelment list for Additional Secretary of my batch officers in IAS. I was taken aback to know that out of about 102 officers of 1988 IAS batch, only about 40 figured in the said list. My surprise was over the radical weeding out of more than half of them. It was a radical shift from the past where about 90 percent of those who joined early could easily aspire to retire as Secretary to the Government of India. Not any more.
Changes unleashed at the top level bureaucracy, when the new regime took over at the Centre, were at a small level of ensuring office punctuality irrespective of rank, which graduated to keeping track of frequenting IAS officers to golf clubs in Delhi, to posting non-IAS officers to assignments held traditionally by IAS officers, to weed out the rotten eggs through the traditional mechanism of compulsory retirement in good numbers, and it climaxed at unheard performance based mid-term transfers at the level of Joint Secretaries. All these new changes were at best piece-meal, because they did not attempt to alter the fundamental character of Indian bureaucracy. As a result, I heard how reluctant were officers increasingly becoming in joining the government of India. They felt the changes will not affect those who stay back in states.
But the radical-most of all is what started two years back, and it affected each, irrespective of one’s placement in state or the Centre. The Government of India made a move to shortlist names of IAS officers for senior most empanelment based on what is known today as the 360-Degree Review. It is an out of box appraisal system to select, promote and even punish officials. It has changed the rules played hitherto in that each officer’s suitability to hold the senior-most post is judged not only by what his immediate seniors hold for him/her. He/she is judged today by what the juniors, peer group, or even social circles think of him/her besides his immediate superiors. This essentially reduces the reliance on annual confidential reports as the key basis for short-listing and empanelment. This, in turn, has a significant bearing on the final selection of a bureaucrat to a top job.
The striking fact about the radical most shift is that its mechanism is the least revealed to even those who are part of the system. Surprisingly, the names of three retired secretary–level officers is a tightly guarded state secret, not known to an ordinary senior officer.
As a result, over the past three years, this new system has slowly unhinged certain basic assumptions in a bureaucrat's zone of maneuverability-like lobbying the minister concerned for a job in his department, or even other top bureaucrats.
This is not to say that any of these methods has turned obsolete. But their effectiveness, or ‘rate of return’, has sharply dropped. While some of it has to do with the erosion of coalition era multiple power centres, the simple fact is that new rules have replaced old rules. It is feared that grounds are prepared that in few years from now, more than half of the Secretary's level post in the Government of India will be held by private sector experts.
It’s said that so devoted is the prime minister to the 360-degree system that he doesn't even want himself to be exempted. He has reportedly chosen to drop names forwarded from his office if they don't pass the 360-degree test.
Three questions arise: What is this review? How is it done? And why is it so important to GoI?
A way had to be found to counter a decade of Congress rule in which the bureaucracy held sway, allowing for long-lasting loyalties to be cultivated across services and beyond retirement barriers. For new equations to be built, old ones had to be disrupted.
But how? After all, lines and rows of batches-cum-cadres seemed well sorted with a string of ‘outstanding’ reports and recommendations. There was no way that they would fail the existing evaluation and selection system, unless there was outright political high-handedness, which would have invited avoidable bureaucratic opprobrium.
Then there was the mandate against corruption. This provided the perfect setting for a systemic overhaul by a newly elected political leadership. This is also the reason why GoI could carry out more senior bureaucratic reshuffles than usual in the past three years.
It was in this context that the 360-degree system was put in place. What does it mean? Quite literally, like in many corporates, it amounts to conducting a holistic evaluation across talent, skills, social and personal parameters instead of simply looking at filework. In bureaucracy, this meant don’t go by confidential reports alone. GoI’s highest echelons were convinced that this system had been rigged, and that many officers were not making it to the shortlist because they had one ‘outstanding’ less than the other. Few important calls were made.
One, all eligible candidates, regardless of their average performance on their appraisals, will be considered for this assessment. Two, the minister’s recommendation of the post being filled will not override the outcome of the 360-degree process. And three, integrity will also be assessed by way of reputation, not just by a Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) clearance.
A Tightly Held Secret
So how is the process conducted? The exercise is a tightly held secret conducted by three retired secretary-level officials. They have been appointed for a two-year period, subject to health considerations, and their identities are supposed to be classified.
This group is expected to work pretty much independently, sharing all the cadres among the three, collecting information from myriad sources in an unsuspecting, unassuming manner, figuring out the general reputation of the officer among subordinate staff, paint an overall perception picture on integrity, besides making any other relevant observations. At the same time this group wouldn't be made aware of the job an officer is being considered for. Now, whom they talk to, and whose views count is still more or less a grey area. But what we know is that this report is placed before a panel headed by the Cabinet secretary in case of secretary-level appointments, and the establishment officer, who heads the panel for joint secretaries. Both panels have PMO representations.
All other inputs, including intelligence reports and ministerial recommendations, are on the table. But the contents and conclusion of this report have a definitive bearing. The recommendation of this panel is largely final. In other words, the measure of perception and reputation has come to matter more, regardless of what appraisal reports say. And while that may give a second chance to many who have lost out in their careers for the wrong reasons, the system has also introduced new variables, including subjective elements, that have drastically altered the field of play.
This bold article on Indian Bureaucracy is by Uday Sahay, A former IPS officer