Addressing imbalances in cadre allocation procedures in Civil Services
Post-2008 cadre allocation policies systematically assign lower quality civil servants to disadvantaged states
A change in the cadre allocation policy in 2008, to assign officers of all-India services to state cadres, has systematically skewed assignments by giving relatively lower quality civil servants to regions with foreign conflict, states with internal political strife, and newly formed states.
Officers of the all India services — comprising the administrative, police, and foreign services — are recruited via the civil service examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), and assigned for life to a particular state. Motivated by the desire that the all India services live up to their “all India” mandate, and promise well-balanced development across all cadres, the government tries to avoid lopsided allocations on three dimensions when designing the cadre allocation procedure.
First, the UPSC aims for a mix of officers from the unreserved, SC, ST, and OBC categories in each cadre. Second, for every officer (‘insider’) who is assigned to their home cadre, the UPSC tries to assign two officers (‘outsider’) who have a different home cadre. Third, the UPSC tries to achieve an equitable balance of quality — as proxied by the exam rank — of assigned officers across cadres. Thus, the challenge is to design a procedure that tries to accommodate officers’ preferences over cadres, while also satisfying these constraints.
The UPSC has changed the assignment procedures a few times in the past, including, most recently, in 2018, to address the shortcomings of the previous policies, primarily the 1984 policy (effective till 2007) and the 2008 policy (till 2017).
Both policies first assigned officers — in order of exam rank — to insider positions to those who indicated their home cadre as top choice. After allotting all possible insiders, the two mechanisms differed in their method of allotting outsiders (who did not get, or chose not to be, assigned to their home cadre). The 1984 policy had a formulaic roster process which does not take into account any further preferences of the officers. The procedure, however, tried to balance the quality (exam rank) of assigned civil servants across cadres. This was achieved by prioritising certain states over others across years, and by prioritising states which failed to get many high-ranking insiders, for being assigned high-ranking outsiders. On the other hand, the 2008 policy assigned outsiders — in order of exam rank — to their most preferred cadre if it had a vacancy.
My research suggests that the 2008 policy led to many imbalances. Nagaland, Assam-Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Sikkim, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, and Chhattisgarh (hereafter called “disadvantaged cadres”) systematically receive officers with 144 lower exam ranks on average as a result of the 2008 policy. Moreover, distance of assigned cadre from home cadre has decreased, and homophily has increased with northerners staying in northern cadres and southerners staying in southern cadres. These imbalances under the 2008 policy are primarily driven by highly correlated preferences of officers over state cadres they would like to serve in, and the differences across state cadres’ successes at producing exam toppers. Cadre preferences of exam toppers are correlated as disadvantaged cadres are consistently ranked towards the bottom of most preference lists. For example, the 2008 IPS batch ranked Nagaland 23rd out of 24, on average.
Since both the 1984 and 2008 policies prioritise insiders, and there is an overwhelming preference for assignment to home state, insiders tend to have better exam ranks than outsiders. States with higher gross domestic product per capita, higher health index, and larger population — such as Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh — tend to produce more exam toppers, accumulating high ranking officers. Whereas disadvantaged cadres such as Sikkim, Assam-Meghalaya, and Nagaland which placed only 0, 0.7, and 0.13 exam toppers relative to vacancies during 2005-2007, rarely benefit from getting high-quality insiders. The quality imbalance generated by the 2008 policy is also reflected in performance and outcome measures of cadres. For example, own tax revenue and human development index have diverged across the advantaged and disadvantaged cadres.
The UPSC announced a new cadre allocation policy in 2017. The procedure is identical to the 2008 policy, but places a further restriction on reporting preferences. Officers first rank their preference over five cross-country zones, and then within each zone. But this new policy incentivises officers to manipulate their reported preferences to get a more preferred assignment. For example, one can avoid landing in a zone with cadres which one really does not like, by ranking a less popular cadre in the preceding zone. Such design flaws allow the system to be gamed.
Hence, the design of civil service allocation mechanisms matters. Certain imbalances, like the underlying correlations in officers’ cadre preferences, can feed through procedural designs and translate to imbalances in development outcomes and bureaucratic performance. If such imbalances are not addressed, vicious cycles can emerge: Relatively higher quality civil servants avoid disadvantaged cadres, outcomes in these distressed areas further deteriorate, and the preference to avoid these regions is further reinforced. Modern tools of matching theory can improve the design of such assignment procedures.
Ashutosh Dinesh Thakur is a PhD candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.This column is an abridged version of the author’s article in Ideas for India
The views expressed are personal