When the early results of India’s first Civil Services Survey came in from Hyderabad a few months ago, the close-knit team of government officials at the Department of Administrative Reforms associated with the ambitious project weren’t particularly surprised, or shocked.
Yes, there had been disappointment and frustration among leaders of India’s civil services. Men and women of questionable integrity did manage to hold important positions in the government. In fact, they were the ones who often managed to get the better postings.
But almost everyone knew that.
Not many, however, were aware how deep, and widespread, the problem was.
One-third of the respondents in the survey – who studied for years to make it past the fiercely competitive civil services examination – had been almost driven to a point where they wanted to give up their job and the perks that came with it.
“We did have our hypothesis on the basis of practical experience … for instance, we expected the survey to reflect frustration … a divide between the Indian Administrative Service and the non-IAS services and political interference to some extent. It did,” conceded a senior researcher at the Hyderabad-headquartered Centre for Good Governance, which did the survey.
For someone who pegged civil service reforms as a key agenda point for his government six years ago, government officials said the survey delineated the agenda that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to pursue actively. Of course, civil service reforms aren’t going to be easy.
“Government officers have been the target of criticism for far too long. This survey seeks to capture the circumstances that they work in … often with their hands tied behind,” said an official, pointing it was fashionable to compare the private and the public sector without accounting for the handicaps.
A significantly large proportion (42-48%) of the respondents from the three all-India services — the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service — complained about undue outside interference. Many others spoke out about the lack of adequate financial resources and competent staff.
Respondents complained that if they did not fall in line, they ran the big risk of being transferred to an obscure post and location.
“What worries the honest government servant is the prospect of being posted to an obscure (place) with zero job content or worse, a string of such postings as a price for one’s honesty,” the survey report observed. Government officials said the fear of such a posting usually forced most ‘honest’ officials to fall in line. Those who resist spend the better part of their careers living out of their suitcase.
Shekhar Singh, who was with the Indian Institute of Public Administration and has spent years interacting with the civil service, said the impression within the bureaucracy that merit and honesty didn’t count any longer was crucial.
The performance appraisal system has gone for a toss with everyone being ranked as very good or excellent, he said. “A civil servant recently told me that when they joined the service nearly two decades ago, officers were afraid to be corrupt. Now, they are afraid to be honest,” he said.
“The irony,” a senior IAS officer said, “is that the government works so hard to recruit the best minds available into the civil services and then forces them into mediocrity”.
Some officials insist that the ability to work despite the pulls and pressures is one of the greatest strengths of the civil service vis-à-vis the private sector.
But it is something their job trains them to do from the moment they begin their first stint in a district.
“As district magistrate, you not only prioritise the allocation of funds in the face of competing demands from different departments as well as local political representatives; right from the MP down to influential local political leaders,” a senior IAS officer said.
The civil service will definitely be able to deliver better if there aren’t any pulls and pressures.
“But the bitter reality is, this may never happen… never mind what anyone tells you. Reforms are like this transparency bug … Everyone wants it but not for themselves,” said a government official with more than 20 years of experience behind him.