Is talent in bureaucracy fading?

The Centre’s decision to extend the services of Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba for another year on Thursday has sparked an interesting debate. This is the third time his service was renewed as in Enforcement Directorate (ED) Director Sanjay Kumar Mishra’s case. The Supreme Court had pulled up the Narendra Modi government for giving Mishra a third consecutive extension, which is against the Service Rules. It has posed a pertinent question: is there no other competent officer in the department to replace him? Even before the apex court’s observation got erased from the public memory, the Narendra Modi government’s decision to give extensions to senior bureaucrats, that too when less than a year before the general elections, raise doubts over the Centre’s real intentions. Yet, it has extended the service of Gauba, former Union home secretary, appointed in August 2019 to the country’s top bureaucratic post of Cabinet secretary for two years. He was later given one year extensions in 2021 and 2022. He is  a 1982 batch Jharkhand cadre Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. Gauba is said to be the key architect of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, under which Jammu and Kashmir was divided into two Union territories following the abrogation of the special status given to it under Article 370 of the Constitution.
Interestingly, these extensions come when Union Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday acknowledged a shortage of bureaucrats. According to him, there are 1,365 vacancies in the IAS and 703 in the Indian Police Service (IPS). This reflects where the problem lies and the Modi government’s visible predicament to depend on utilizing the services of some honest officers. This is even though the bureaucracy, of late, is no longer the same as the one that Indira Gandhi tamed or the one that ruled the roost under Dr Manmohan Singh. Today’s civil servants are shedding not only their ‘red beacons’ but also their imperial haloes, busy figuring out the next creative solutions if they do not want to be fossilized, ever since Modi took over the reins. That too, when the entire world is experiencing technological evolutions, especially artificial intelligence (AI) is gobbling up jobs. Hence, the time is ripe to find newer ways to deliver government services to citizens. “We are in the process of drawing indices for 2047. At that time, the scenario will be different and technology and AI will take over in such a way that human interface will only be a facilitator,’’ Jitendra Singh, said. In fact, till 2007, bureaucrats were evaluated based on their annual confidential reports (ACR) and graded as average, good, very good and outstanding. This has been replaced with the annual performance appraisal report (APAR) to assess performance as well as ‘personality’ traits and domain expertise of officers. Ratings are made on a 0-10 scale based on different parameters. And, the ACR system was non-transparent, and only an adverse remark was shown to the officer. The APAR discloses the entire format and ratings. The 360-degree appraisal came as a ‘supplemental tool’  in 2015, a year after Modi assumed office. In the corporate sector, it is popularly known as multi-source feedback, which the bureaucracy was not used to.
After the Dev Dutt judgment of the Supreme Court in 2008, which said the ACR of a public servant must be communicated to him/her, most officers often got scores of 10 or nearly 10, which became difficult to distinguish between the best and the rest. Against that backdrop, it was in 2017, that the Ministry of Personnel informed a parliamentary panel that the earlier system of empanelment failed to capture the qualities of integrity and capability. But the new 360-degree appraisal system is based on feedback from stakeholders like seniors, juniors, peers, and serving secretaries. And this, though called a ‘supplemental tool’, has become dominant. One initial and visible result is that fewer officers are getting empaneled for senior posts. For example, the 1989 IPS batch that got empaneled had around 70 officers. But only 32 were found eligible to hold the additional director-general’s posts. And for director-general or equivalent posts, only 14 officers were empanelled. This mean only the efficient are getting empanelled. On the other hand, officers of the IAS, which still enjoys hegemony over other services, are making it to the top faster. An IAS joint secretary with three years or more experience is being promoted to an additional secretary. The positive side is that it is creating a pool of younger officer reaching top positions faster so that they have more years in service. It is also cutting the seven-layered British-styled system of governance ― the movement of files from section officer upward to under secretary, deputy secretary, director, joint secretary, additional secretary, and secretary. Across Central ministries, at least one layer has been shed after some joint secretaries got promoted to additional secretaries.
Civil servants are recruited to Central services through the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) but are allocated to states, which become cadre-controlling authorities. Everyone who comes to serve at the Centre is on deputation for a specific period. This practice was meant to bring the best talent to the Central government, keep the bureaucracy politically neutral and give officers exposure benefiting both the Centre and states. But, the root cause for the shortage of civil servants was due to direct recruitment through the UPSC civil service examination (CSE). The capacity of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration is only 180 officers in a batch. Taking in more numbers can impact the quality of officers. The government too does not want to affect the pyramidal structure of civil services. But, how long and how far the Central government wishes to prolong to take a call to fix the problem – increasing the number of intake of recruitment through UPSC CSE?