Civil Services Reform

Civil Services and civil service system

Civil Services Reform
Civil Services Reform

The term ‘civil service’ and ‘civil service system’ was first introduced in India in the 17th century by the British East India Company. In the early days, the civil servants were mostly engaged in the commercial affairs of the company. With time and increase in hegemony of the company the role of civil servants expanded to include administration. The name Warren Hastings and Lord Cornwallis stand out in this respect for the former laid the foundations and the latter reformed, modernized and rationalised the civil services. A number of committees, commissions and reports over the years up till independence gave shape to the administrative structure that India inherited which included 2 all-India services- the Indian Civil Services (ICS) and Indian Police Services in addition to several central and state services.

The ICS and IPS were the main instruments in sustaining the British rule in India which included a small elite group of overpaid, insensitive and mostly British men. Because of the above tendencies related to the civil services the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly did not provide any constitutional provision to the all-India services. However, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel supported the all-India services in the Constituent Assembly because it was the only island of stability when India faced many challenges on the eve of independence.

Eventually services under the Union and States were included in part XIV of the constitution. Article 308 to 313 included in Chapter I of part XIV which addresses the recruitment, conditions of services, tenure, dismissal and removal of persons serving the union and states. Article 312 specifically mentions Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service created by the Parliament. It also speaks about creation of new all India services delegating the power to the Parliament when a resolution for the same has been passed by the Council of States or Rajya Sabha. Article 315-323 of Chapter II of Part XIV talks about the composition and the duties of the Public Service Commission.

Steel Frame or Deadwood?

The civil services in India was seen as a tool for socioeconomic development, the demands for central planning and the essentiality of holding together a nation subjected to internal political pressure. After independence, the most important elements of development were: Planning, dominant public sector, full utilisation of the all productive public resources, use of science and technology as instruments of change and growth, radical land reforms, modernization of agriculture and reduction of disparities in the society. The dominant role of the public sector made bureaucracy the pivot of India’s development. Civil servants were to act as principal agents of social change and economic development in the country.

The model of development that the country followed after independence required government permission or license for every small or big business to be set up. Further, the discretionary power rested with the bureaucrat. The bureaucrat could issue licenses against favours granted by the concerned party or withhold permission on the refusal of the concerned party to please the official. In maximum cases the spoils were shared between the bureaucrat and the politician who was the ultimate sanctioning authority. This was the beginning of the infamous ‘license-quota-permit’ raj which derailed India’s socialist pattern of development. Because of this powerful and corrupt troika of officer-politician-businessman (scornfully called as the ‘babu-neta-bania’ syndrome) the planning process, the mixed economy and the ideals of development got off tracks in about 20-30 years from independence.

The other rot in the system that followed was the notion of ‘committed bureaucracy’. This notion was anchored to the idea that a bureaucrat should be 100% committed to the policies and programmes of the political party in power. This was totally against the ideals that Sardar had dreamt for the civil services which were independence and the freedom to speech and advice. It also had far reaching and negative consequences which still can be seen. Once the idea gained legitimacy bureaucrats began currying favour from their political bosses. Plum postings were offered to the ‘yes men’ while professional opinions were punished by frequent transfers or insignificant posts in some department/ministry. The license-quota-permit raj in tandem with politicized bureaucracy remained the context of the Indian civil services till the onset of the 1991 reforms.

The period post 1991 when India undertook reforms the attitude of Indian bureaucracy changed. With liberalization, privatization and globalisation becoming inevitable there was a roll back of the state and need felt for downsizing the bureaucracy. Subsequent to the structural adjustment of the economy many bureaucrats were hostile to the idea of slackening governmental control. However, some saw the writing on the wall and became facilitators rather than obstructers of development. Younger bureaucrats who have grown up in new liberalised India are more amenable to the idea of development. Nonetheless, the highly politicised bureaucracy is something that has continued even in the post-globalisation era.

In addition to the above issues one controversy that has plagued the civil services time and again is that it is an army of ‘generalists’. The controversy gains more ground when atrocious postings take place, say, someone who has spent considerable time of her career in Ministry of Women and Child Development being transferred to Ministry of Defence or even may be from Ministry of Finance to Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

The recruitment examination conducted by UPSC though being extremely competitive is not a targeted examination, where people from dissimilar backgrounds are selected. While it is widely accepted that a brilliant scientist is inappropriate for sales the selection procedure to get into civil services does not distinguish on the basis of academic qualification. Selected candidates after training and serving in the districts of the state cadre are posted to the central and state secretariat. Here they work under disparate departments such as education, health, finance, public welfare department etc… Many of these departments require specialists like accountants, town planners, environmental experts, architects etc… But mostly generalists perform these disparate roles.

There are two trends that need to be kept in mind when speaking about the need of domain experts, one the growing importance of the Asian consumer and second digitisation. The Asian consumers’ rise to global consumption between 2010 and 2020 adds a new USA in dollar terms. To make use of this phenomenon all the forces of economy must run to the full efficiency. Digitisation is affecting not just how people live and interact but also how businesses and government operate or will operate in future. Hence, the need of specialisation in the modern era fundamentally challenges the generalist tendencies of the Indian civil services.

Reforms Proposed/Undertaken So Far

In the recent times a number of steps have been taken and been proposed to enhance the efficiency of the civil services. The Department of Personnel and Training in December 2018 invited application for the level of joint secretary for 10 departments/ministries of the government of India. This decision of the government is rooted in the idea of need of specialization in the civil services. The move could be a significant step towards fulfilling the long standing need for domain specialist in the positions crucial for policy making and implementation of government schemes.

The UPSC civil services examination draws people from diverse backgrounds- doctors, engineers, graduates from social sciences, humanities and management studies. But the IAS values general competency more than specialised skills. The generalist skill set was more suited when the state was the nerve centre of the economy. But as the state started rolling back and let the market takeover the job of a civil servant has to not only drive the government machinery but also regulate private sector. It has become imperative to have in-depth knowledge in not only the new sectors such as telecom, environment, renewable energy, climate, intellectual property rights but also traditional areas such as health, finance, commerce or aviation.

The need for domain based postings was first pointed out by the 1st ARC 1965 headed by Morarji Desai. The imperative for the same was recognised and amplified by the Surinder Nath committee and the Hota committee in 2003 and 2004 respectively. In 2005 the 2nd ARC recommended a shift from “career based approach to a post based approach” for the top tier government jobs. The move to include people specialising in their knowledge is not new and has been taken as far back as 1950s and 1960s. In recent times, Nandan Nilankani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia are some of the examples who had been appointed by the previous government. However, most of the times such appointments are just consultations.

One of the other steps that have been proposed recently is allotting states and services to the entrants after they have completed the foundation course based on the combined marks obtained in the civil services examination and marks obtained at the end of foundation course. The rationale behind this proposal is anchored in the same idea of specialisation of the civil services and also that an entrant would take the foundation course seriously. Once the entrant has completed his foundation course his inclination towards a particular subject would be known and he could be trained in specialised core fields such as internal security, civil rights, economic policy, emerging environmental issues etc.

The present government since 2017 has been taking some serious steps to deal with non-performing and complacent civil servants. Such corrective actions were long needed and are both bold and laudable. The ‘non-performance’ ailment arises from the fact that not all positions in the government are meaningful. The present bureaucracy is bloated and portfolios have been created just to accommodate officers. Added to this is the pay package that has increased with every pay commission. It is in this backdrop it is to be studied how civil services has become deadwood. The performance appraisal system needs a mention here which has been subjected to frequent changes moving from a detailed performance report to one based entirely on numerical score and then to the present 360 degree assessment for empanelment. In 2015, a MoU was signed by India and Malaysia on collaboration in performance management, project delivery and monitoring governance. Performance Management and Delivery Unit of Malaysia often referred to as PEMANDU is a composite system that is far better than the new Public Management System introduced in UK, Australia, New Zealand as well as other countries.

Why Some Proposed Steps Are Not Viable?

Frankly speaking, the IAS or even the other central services have not lived to the Sardar’s expectations. It has become politicised, slothful, complacent and self-serving. But it has also delivered some brilliant results. Its officers are selected by the most rigourous, objective and fair selection process in the country. Professor Lant Pritchett of Harvard University calls getting into Harvard a walk in the park in comparison to the civil services examination.

The civil services have faltered due to the political executive generally after emergency and particularly because of the notion of ‘committed bureaucracy’. The tools of postings, transfers, re-employment,  chargesheets and of late tickets to elections to subvert, entice and intimidate civil servants are used by the political governments. But instead of checking the above tendencies the government has time and again targeted the IAS for a quick fix.

Firstly, the demand for domain or even technically qualified persons from outside is technically incorrect. The IAS already has enough technically qualified. The 2017 batch for example had about 45% from engineering background. If doctors, IT graduates are added the percentage comes close to 50%. Secondly, the whole discussion about domain is misleading. A civil servant is not required to be a technical expert. A civil servant stands at a point where technology intersects the development needs of a common man. In governance there cannot be a one-size-fit-all approach. The first 10 years that a civil servant spends in the field gives him the idea of actual working of government at the village, panchayat and district level. When he moves to the secretariat, he is well aware of the ground level situation. This particular trait or if we be generous enough to call it a ‘talent’ would be particularly lacking in a lateral entry recruit. In governance, domain knowledge is required for only a small part and a large part covers public administration in which an IAS officer is an expert. Say for example, to construct a flyover one would argue that an engineer is needed for the job. But, building a flyover would need more than just engineering expertise such as acquisition of land, resettlement and rehabilitation, diversion of forest areas, environment impact assessment, social impact assessment, negotiating PPPs with the buyers etc… Here the job of the IAS officer is indisputable as he has typically worked in a number of departments/ministries and his knowledge is deep and eclectic. Moreover he does not operate and silos like domain experts do.

In this context if we analyse the recent advertisement by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) we find the fault lines. Firstly, the advertisement does not specify the kind of technical qualifications being looked for by the DoPT for the 10 mentioned department/ministries. And secondly, DoPT under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension is a personnel agency whereas recruitment is done by the UPSC. It is unclear why DoPT is the one which is out with the advertisement when it clearly should be UPSC. UPSC is an independent constitutional body which has been performing its duties efficiently and without any ambiguity ever since it has been formed. It has expertise in impartial and unbiased recruitment processes. Inducting people from outside to an influential position such as joint secretary needs a clear cut strategy so that such positions are not used for their personal growth by people from the big industries. If so happens then the whole argument of lateral entry would forever die and it would be hard to reform an already ailing bureaucracy.

In addition to the above the proposal of allotting state cadres and services after the foundation course is highly controversial. The civil services examination is conducted by the UPSC which derives its independence from the Constitution of India. Article 320(1) says ‘it shall be the duty of the Union and State Public Service Commissions to conduct examinations for appointment to the services of the Union and services of the State respectively’. If the marks secured in the foundations course are added for allocation of services it would make the training academy an extended wing of the UPSC, which it is not. Thus the idea violates Article 320(1).

Article 316 provides that the members are appointed for a fixed tenure which cannot be changed to their disadvantage. And Article 319 bars them to hold any other office under either the central government or the state government after they cease to be members. On the other hand the Director and faculty members to the training institute are civil servants for a fixed term and they do not enjoy any constitutional provisions. They would try to please the political elites to advance their career prospects. This would add politicization, communalization and bureaucratization to the training process. Further trainees might use corrupt methods to get into ‘better’ services.  With about 12 faculty members the trainer-trainee ratio is very high in the Mussoorie institute and it would be impossible to do a rigorous and objective evaluation if the government’s new proposal is followed. Naturally, then foundation course will have to be conducted in other institutes as well, which would again effect the evaluation process of the already highly competitive exam, where even a smaller difference can decide whether a person can get the IAS or say, the Indian Ordinance Factories Services. Further many entrants opt out the foundation course and prepare for the civil services exam again, to improve their ranks and get a better service. If the foundation course is added to the examination it would be made compulsory and the entrant would be deprived of this privilege. Hence this proposal is administratively unworkable.


Even with all its flaws the Indian civil services have been the only constant element of governance in India. When coalition parties became a norm of the day and later when the centre and states faced political turmoil for years and years together it provided stability. It has played an important role in proving the prophets of doom wrong who had been professing that Indian democracy is flawed and would collapse with the pressures of time. They provide a horizontal and vertical continuity to the government machinery. They are only ones who know the temporal and spatial necessities.

However as it is well known ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’,  the civil services are tainted with corruption, politicization, complacency, self-centric attitude and the inability to evolve with time. These negative traits have normalised over the time and form the first image whenever bureaucracy is discussed even casually. Times have changed we are living in a totally different era than 70 years ago. People are more aware of their rights and so should be the ones who are driving the government machinery. The ‘mai-baap’ and the ‘jeehazoori’ attitude have continued from the colonial times and is still the norm of the day in some parts of the country. And even though people know their rights the bureaucracy has its way with how things operate. The same bureaucrat then heads to the secretariat to become an important part in policy making. This is why the lateral entry is required. However, lateral entry should be checked to prevent privatising the bureaucracy, because that would hurt both the government and the common man.

Further the proposal to allot state and services at the end of the foundation course sounds more absurd than logical. Reforms should not encroach upon the established independent institutions which have worked efficiently and diligently. Because if that happens then the new process would again become inefficient and again new reforms would be proposed falling into a vicious cycle where there would be no outcomes. If the government needs reforms at the examination level it should be recommended to the UPSC which would take necessary steps and make the changes. The UPSC derives its independence and powers from the Constitution of India and is better suited to do the job.


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