Why India’s civil services need corporate management structures and culture

Updated on Oct 14, 2021 07:00 PM IST

There is a crying need for reforms such as a transparent and result-driven appraisal system, rules that make decision-making easier, better interdepartmental coordination, among others.

The argument that corporate management cannot bring desired results in public administration seems a bit stretched (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The argument that corporate management cannot bring desired results in public administration seems a bit stretched (Shutterstock)
ByLloyd Mathias

Former Infosys chief executive officer, SD Shibulal’s appointment as the chief of a three-member task force aimed at bringing bureaucratic reforms in India should be seen as a step in the right direction. The government can make good use of Infosys co-founder’s vast entrepreneurial experience and operational expertise to transform capacity-building in the bureaucracy through its Mission Karmayogi programme — a capacity-building scheme for civil servants aimed at upgrading the post-recruitment training mechanism of officers and employees at all levels.

Given the bureaucracy’s proclivity to resist any change in the status quo, there are already murmurs and concerns about this. But the argument that corporate management cannot bring desired results in public administration seems a bit stretched.

One may argue that, unlike a corporate entity, governments don’t work to make a profit. This is true, but more than the end goal, we must consider the factors that drive profitability. It’s about increasing productivity, efficiency and ensuring that the benefits of the government’s welfare schemes reach every deserving person in the country.

It is undeniable that the circumstances under which a bureaucrat works are far more complex and challenging than what a private sector executive faces. In the absence of bureaucratic independence, civil servants are often left with little choice but to chase the political goals and ambitions of the ruling party. And those not toeing the line face frequent transfers or, worse, harassment. So, the power to transfer has become an instrument to bring the bureaucrats to heel, and it works because authority sits with the position, not the person.

In 2013, the Supreme Court issued directives to the central and state government to create an independent civil service board at the Centre and in the states to provide fixed tenure in postings to civil servants and advise them in matters of posting, transfer and disciplinary actions. Subsequently, state governments constituted their respective CSBs headed by cabinet secretaries who were required to submit a quarterly report to the central government stating the details and reasons of transfers before the minimum specified tenure. Even if the Centre would disagree with the state, it’s least likely to pursue the case to avoid upsetting the tacit political understanding between the two tiers of government. Suffice to say, the reforms so far have not brought the desired results.

There is a crying need for reforms such as a transparent and result-driven appraisal system, rules that make decision-making easier, better interdepartmental coordination, among others.

This, in addition to the requirement to work in tandem with the judiciary, investigative agencies and other entities under a predefined set of rules and regulations, doesn’t make things easier for civil servants. As a result, governance suffers from innumerable operational efficiencies, which in turn lowers productivity, slows innovation, and stifles growth.

Again, there is no denying that the political environment encourages pliability and corruption, but we cannot just expect a sudden overhaul of the system. So, rather than apportioning the blame, we need to analyse and put our best foot forward.

And in this case, introducing corporate management in bureaucracy seems to be the most reasonable step. Unlike the present bureaucratic system, corporate management is performance-centric, KPI driven and demands greater accountability. Appraisals and rewards are driven by performance parameters and competencies and not just tenure.

The major goal of the Karmyogi programme is to enhance citizen experience for government services and improve the availability of a competent workforce. As part of the programme, a civil servant will be empowered with specific role-competencies to ensure efficient service delivery of the highest quality standards. This is precisely what corporate managers seek to achieve. They invest in talent management, creating competency-driven leadership roles and work towards a common organisational goal.

We have many competent IAS officers who have made it through a gruelling entrance test and rigorous training. However, a rapidly changing environment, new technologies, and rising citizen expectations have seen some of them struggle to equip themselves with skills to handle complex issues such as health, energy, and environment. What we need here are domain experts. We should not shy away from bringing in experts laterally into the IAS, a step that the government has taken.

A major bureaucratic overhaul may have eerie similarities with electoral reforms undertaken by former chief election commissioner, TN Seshan. Seshan – a career bureaucrat - not only redefined the role of the election commission, which was till then regarded as a toothless agency, he also changed the way elections take place in our country. With the introduction of corporate governance in bureaucracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would do well to leave behind a legacy that could truly define his tenure.

Lloyd Mathias is a business strategist and an independent director

The views expressed are personal

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