The bureaucracy is going back to school.
The Cabinet Secretariat is giving classroom lessons to India’s senior-rung civil servants on how to write proposals for the cabinet and its committees that are lucid, free of errors and do not unnecessarily burden the ministers with information that they may not really need to know to take an informed decision.
The Cabinet Secretariat calls its classroom a workshop on preparation of cabinet notes and the target groups are Joint Secretary-rank officers that officers of the elite Indian Administrative Service can aspire to reach after putting in nearly 16 years of service.
“You would be shocked if you were to see some of the cabinet notes,” a senior government official said. A presentation drawn up for the workshop also notes “serious concerns” of “deficiencies in cabinet notes” being expressed at the “highest levels (read Prime Minister).
Officials said cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar — who besides heading the secretariat to Union Cabinet also plays the role of a coordinator and arbitrator — had attempted to correct the problems the way bureaucrats usually do.
For the last few years, his office had been writing to heads of government departments at regular intervals to point out flaws in cabinet notes; right from the spacing between two lines and the quality of the contents to delivering on deadlines.
But the joint secretaries — who have to prepare the notes — apparently did not pay heed.
Sources said there were also concerns that some officers pack too much information, and background into cabinet notes.
“This wasn’t of too much of a concern as long as the information was going to remain in the government…. But with people demanding access to cabinet notes under RTI, officials do need to be careful,” a senior official said.
So participants are told to seek the approval of the prime minister’s office before they finalise the cabinet note but unambiguously instructed to avoid a reference to the views of the PMO or the Cabinet Secretariat.
To help institutionalise the attributes of a well-drafted cabinet note that succinctly argues in favour of the proposal, the cabinet secretariat had also compiled a handbook that lists out the instructions in 30 pages, complete with a specimen copy of a perfect cabinet note that the bureaucrats can refer to.
An IAS officer in the Delhi Government said the deteriorating quality of cabinet notes over the years had been felt in the state governments too. “We too have been drawing attention of the officers concerned to the deficiencies and nudging them to raise the quality bar. But we haven’t been very successful as well,” the official said.