The day he assumed the office of foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon sent out a 'dear colleague' letter to all members of the service.
Nothing unusual about that — most foreign secretaries send out such dispatches when they take over. What makes Menon's October 1 communication assume significance is its tenor: India's Foreign Service must reform to become a modern foreign policy instrument relevant to the twenty-first century.
"If we do not reform and change, we risk irrelevance or worse, and having unsatisfactory change forced on us by circumstance or others," Menon warned.
"I would be most grateful," Menon wrote, "If you would tell me by the end of October what you think we, as a Service and Ministry, should do to transform ourselves into the effective and modern foreign policy instrument that twenty-first century India needs."
In an effort to boost flagging morale within the ministry—after the unusual recent spate of top level resignations—and unite his officials, Menon wrote: "We were once described as a 'cradle to grave Ministry'. Unlike other civil servants we stay with this one Ministry from the beginning to the end of our service. It is, therefore, for us to make of this Ministry what we can."
The letter, on Menon's official letterhead, has been sent to every IFS officer in India and in missions abroad.
To help his colleagues along, Menon has provided a list of topics, 'to concentrate our thoughts'.
These include the ministry's working methods, most important among them, how often to communicate and the means for communication between foreign missions and headquarters through the internet, secure e-mails and audio/ video conferencing.
Organisation within ministry, including reorganisation of territorial divisions and external inputs (from think tanks and NGOs) also figure.
Career prospects and improved infrastructure are other topics on which suggestions have been sought by the top diplomat.
Officials have begun responding to Menon's letter, listing out their suggestions and experiences. But no official was willing to go on record about the suggestions they have offered as the exercise is "expected to be an intra-ministry, confidential exercise," an official, who has received the letter, said.
Menon's appointment, superceding 16 senior officials from the 1970, 1971 and 1972 batches of the IFS, gives the new foreign secretary almost three years at the head of the service, ample time to put in place a series of sweeping changes planned for the Ministry of External Affairs.