India should widen pool of good, appointed officials

India should widen pool of good, appointed officials

By Shailesh Pathak | 29 July, 2017
Chief Minister/Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, appointed officials, India’s Election Commission, officials in India
Of course, such a development would see a bitter pushback from the senior most group of officials in each of our fiercely protected silos of services.

How could your Chief Minister/Prime Minister or Cabinet Ministers deliver much better outcomes to you as a citizen? Many well-meaning politically elected leaders, who want to do good work for citizens, are stuck. They have a limited talent pool of good appointed officials in India. This pool abounds with silos—services such as IAS, IPS, IFS, IRS, IRSE, IRTS and many others. Seniority concerns prevent more efficient appointed officials attaining greater responsibilities earlier in their career. The top slots usually have appointed officials with short tenures, inching closer to retirement.

Effective state capacity requires visible outcomes produced by those who work for the state. This is largely dependent on its leadership, both elected and appointed, at all three—city, state and Union—levels. How could India improve law and order, courts, social and physical infrastructure, e-governance, ease of doing business and other essential state functions? Are there learnings from our own past 70 years, and from other countries that are similar to India, in population, size or operating systems? 

There are seven key lessons. 

First, that leadership matters in getting government teams to deliver. 

Second, that political leadership, even if very dynamic and positive, needs appointed officials of high calibre, to implement their plans well.

Third, the current system of appointing officials in leadership positions, at city, state and Union levels, is dysfunctional, with accidental occurrences of the right official being appointed to the right job.

 

One leader changed the operating system without changing any law. Worthy successors kept improving the robust process. Leadership matters.  

Fourth, it is imperative to move to a transparent system of widening the pool of talent from which leadership positions are filled.

Fifth, such lateral entry is going to largely benefit mid-career bright individuals already in the government system, rather than private sector hopefuls. 

Sixth, this is going to attract severe flak from the incumbents in the system. 

Seventh, only strong political leadership—PM and CMs—can make the change happen

India’s Election Commission has cleaned up the election process, starting in 1990 (I remember the formidable T.N. Seshan’s talk on this at the Mussoorie Academy). Since then, election processes have only improved, and most elected officials can claim a fair and unbiased process. One leader changed the operating system without changing any law. Worthy successors kept improving the robust process. Leadership matters. 

What of appointed officials? There are welcome moves of 360-degree evaluation, and empanelment of two batches at a time to widen the talent pool for choice (albeit only in Government of India, not in state governments). However, as NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant says, we cannot aspire to a 21st century India with a 19th century administrative apparatus. The blueprint has been with us since 2008, in the Sixth Pay Commission report. In particular, its recommendations from Clause 6.1.8 to 6.1.14, regarding competition for all senior appointments including lateral entry, should be mandatory action points. See http://mof.gov.in/6cpc/6cpcreport.pdf.

A dynamic state Chief Minister, or the Indian Prime Minister could well implement these recommendations in the next 12 months. This would deliver better citizen outcomes, helping her or his re-election as well. 

Expanding the talent pool to choose from would be critical. Thus, every appointed official’s post above the Additional District Magistrate could be thrown open for open competition from all government employees of whichever department or service, of whichever seniority. In addition, all such competitively appointed officials should be compensated at market rates during their tenures, with their current existing fixed government salary and a high variable component linked to achieving pre-decided outcomes. Thus, irrespective of service, cadre or seniority, a 40- or 50-year old, good at policing and effective law and order, could vie for becoming Delhi Police Commissioner. Another good at project management and logistics, could eye Vice Chairman, Mumbai Port Trust or CEO, Amaravati Capital Region Development Authority. A third could further her finance knowledge as Income Tax Commissioner, Bengaluru, or his electrical engineering skills as Secretary Energy, Assam or Member, Railway Board. Given the increasing importance of cities, how about a management expert being appointed to lead Varanasi, Madurai or Gurgaon Municipal Corporation?

This will really motivate the cohort of mid-career bright government officials in the 30-45 age group, currently held back by the “seniority” system in appointments. Such candidates would be the most likely to get appointed since they are well versed in governmental processes and have the informal networks to achieve outcomes. A pure-play private candidate would lack the latter, even if she rapidly ascends the learning curve on processes. Hence, lateral entry is the best thing that could happen for bright mid-career government officials. Such winners would have a long tenure of 5+ years to implement their plans. 

Similarly, roles in Government of India, requiring technical expertise, would draw applications from those with long experience in that domain, rather than inducting officials without such technical expertise, ill-suited for such roles. This is most glaringly evident when All India Service officials come from the state cadres on deputation to handle subjects in the Union List, which they have zero experience in. Again, sadly, there is no formal orientation training for such officials; one is expected to learn on the job. Further, after completing four to five years, one moves to an entirely unrelated field, and the painstakingly built capacity is frittered away.

Of course, such a development would see a bitter pushback from the senior most group of officials in each of our fiercely protected silos of services. All of them have indeed gone through the grind—so many years of waiting to attain the right seniority to take a shot at these very top jobs. Over half of them are truly outstanding, and would win all such open competitions. The remaining, alas, have to be found parking slots as jobs in the current system, rather than the other way around. Almost like hiding poor fielders on the cricket field. Such sloppy fielders could easily be pensioned off after age 50, as per existing government regulations, so that they can make greater contributions to nation-building in roles outside government.

Some would cavil at such proposals, saying elected leaders would most likely pick favourites. The 6th Pay Commission recommendations also suggest a robust process. However, picking favourites is already happening at most levels of government, with very small talent pools. Moving to outcome-based senior appointments and jettisoning the baggage of “which batch” and “which service” is going to be good for India. Had we accepted the 2008 recommendation of the 6th Pay Commission, government outcomes would certainly have changed over the last decade. 

This is exactly what has happened in countries such as Canada, Australia and even the UK, where we derive our administrative systems from. The United States changes its entire group of senior appointed officials every four or eight years, with every President; its development over the last century shows the outcome focus created thereby. New Public Management entails top management of departments moving to outcome-focused contracts. A visiting Australian Treasury veteran confided that when he joined government, he couldn’t even imagine that someday, their Treasury head would be on contract. We already follow that system for RBI. Could we dream of that happy day for all leadership positions in our governments? Further, when the Prime Minister says that our dreams to see a developed India will be fulfilled in our lifetime, would such a radical change not be necessary?

Shailesh Pathak is a student of infrastructure, cities, finance and public policy, with a career evenly divided between the IAS and the private sector. Twitter @shypk

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