DNA, January 12, 2015

By Pradeep S Mehta

After retirement, civll servants often find a sinecure. If they can in such positions take orders from juniors, then why the compunction about doing so when in regular service?

The debate about the supercession of 16 officers in the appointment of the Foreign Secretary has centred around the seniority aspect, predicated on batches. But should the people — consumers of the governance system, with its merits and demerits — be bothered about this aspect of batches?

`Dictionary on batches’

Neither the dictionary analogy on batches — that is, goods carrying markings identifying them as belonging to a particular set with expiry/use-before dates — nor the civil engineering parlance about concrete batches apply to the civil services batches.

Civil servants remain on the rolls till they are 60, and after that often find a sinecure for at least another five.

If these officers can in the latter position take orders from juniors, then why the compunction about a similar situation in the former? Per contra, why should juniors have to kow-tow to mediocre seniors?

Recently, the author was surprised to hear a young mid-career IAS officer, who has since resigned from the service, praising someone six years his junior admitting that the latter was much more competent than him.

But when asked if he would work under the more competent junior, it raised the hackles of the `senior’; though he would gladly work under the `junior’ were he (the latter) to become a minister.

Administrative reforms

There is constant talk of administrative reforms, but movement of not an inch. The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, has been trying to desperately do something, but the empire knows how to block and delay reforms. One suggestion is to bring in the armed forces system of promotion into the civil services. That seems the best way.

One, the armed forces have a staggered retirement age linked to rank.

Say in the army, in general cases one is sure of reaching a colonel’s position, but after that one has to cross various hurdles. One will never meet a colonel in the age group of 60; usually they are in their 40s-50s.

However, at the next three higher levels, it is the best who move up and one is selected as the head of force.

In the civil services, regardless of performance, a person retains the seniority set by the time of entering the service.

The civil services, in a manner of solidarity, `manage’ their cadre in such a way that almost everyone in a batch reaches the top. In contrast, in the armed forces, the list is redrawn every time an officer gets promoted. A similar system needs to be introduced in the civil services also.

There is one another issue here: There is no objective and transparent system to select persons for such jobs.

In the case of civil services, the problem gets compounded by the fact that civil servants have to report to politicians and, thus, one cannot expect a foolproof system of weeding out and/or recasting of seniority lists.

In such a situation, what is the best way forward? Needed is an out-of-the-box system that is designed to get the best moving faster than the mere travellers.

(The author is Secretary-General of CUTS International, a research, advocacy and networking group and can be reached at psm@cuts.org)

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