Indian Civil Services: Steel Frame or Steel Cage


Transforming the Steel Frame: Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform


Rupa 2023 pp. 233; Rs 595

Vinod Rai — the editor — retired as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, one among a handful of constitutional positions that senior civil servants aspire to, if the apex job of Cabinet Secretary eludes them. An unusually blunt audit report in 2010, assessing a presumptive loss of Rs 1.76 trillion to the exchequer due to alleged misallocation of 2G spectrum, shook the political establishment. Widespread public outrage forced systemic reform, making him a quintessential corruption-busting role model for bureaucrats.

Cafeteria approach

This book offers a “cafeteria approach.” Readers can browse across the perceptions of four eminent, private sector honchos, six retired civil servants, one journalist, one lateral entrant and one civil servant-turned-international official. This diversity of opinion invokes the spirit of collaboration, generally absent in government but vitally necessary, if outcomes are to be improved or citizen participation enhanced, as elaborated in the lively essays by biosciences entrepreneur and Bengaluru’s inspirational citizen activist Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and banker and global sanitation advocate Naina Lal Kidwai.

Whole of government approach to reform

Manish Sabharwal, a human capital development entrepreneur, dubs the “steel frame” a “steel cage” which limits the enormous potential of those trapped within. He proposes a root and branch excising of outdated practices in recruitments, role-content, assessments, and performance management. Prajapati Trivedi, an academic, describes his attempt at imparting performance orientation and mapping results in the Union government, which sadly, failed to grow roots. For S Ramadorai previously CEO, Tata Consultancy Services, and chairperson, skilling mission, since 2011, filling the “capability gap” between the perception and reality is key. As chairperson of the Karmayogi Bharat Mission, launched in 2020, he hopes to use the “whole of government” approach to re-energise politicians, citizens, and the civil service for sustainable, systemic change.

Politicians not the main stumbling block

Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, consulting editor, Business Standard, questions the trope that obstructive politicians are to blame for bureaucratic efficiency. He points to the poor management of local bodies, where the civil service rules the roost because their local political masters are disempowered by state government design. The real constraint is the lack of an institutionalised performance orientation.

Islands of excellence

There are, however, islands of excellence. The Election Commission, as N. Gopalaswami, a retired chief election commissioner recounts, is one of the few government entities where performance orientation is at par with international best practices and the scale at which process digitalization has been adopted, unprecedented. For Satyananda Mishra, a retired chief information commissioner, the Right to Information Act, 2005, is foundational for making government transparent, taming executive discretion, and reducing corruption. He laments the 2019 amendment lowering the status of information commissioners. It bodes ill for citizen empowerment and for the regulation of political parties, which resist making their internal functioning transparent. Pradeep Kumar was a central vigilance commissioner overseeing the functioning of the Central Bureau of Investigation — the premier agency for investigating corruption cases. Culling bureaucrats found wanting on integrity remains an uphill task, given the politically charged environment and the long delays in deciding cases by the judiciary.

Vinod Rai writes on reinventing the CAG — a supreme audit institution with a global reputation for excellence — by going beyond rules-based compliance audit, to citizen-centric, participative, efficiency enhancing, systemic evaluations. Institutional tweaks like attaching the CAG to Parliament and joint recruitment of personnel by government and Parliament could embolden CAG to play this expansive role, on the lines of the United States Government Accountability Office.

Conventional wisdom

Deepak Gupta, previously chairman of the Union Public Service Commission and author of The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS, believes that reviving past good practices — early recruitment, limited chances in examinations, compulsory basic written examinations for all services with additional compulsory papers for different services, compulsory rotation outside home cadres, guarding against conflict of interest whilst expanding lateral entry, periodic vetting of officers by the UPSC prior to promotion and rigorously enforcing a rigid, common superannuation date to ensure timely, meritocratic churn at the top can improve cadre management.

Pushpendra Rai left the IAS to become an international civil servant. He advocates that creativity; the spirit of enquiry and innovation be imbibed early on to escape the rule-bound mindset which negates citizen-centric governance. Coincidentally, this is also the objective of the Karmayogi mission. Sanjeev Chopra, who previously helmed the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, assures that significant changes in pedagogy through practical training and syndicate work and technology enabled content mean civil service trainees graduate with core, future ready competencies.

Wide ranging, engaging, informative and edited to provide the maximum bang for the buck, this publication is a must read for anyone desiring to get into the steel frame or to escape the steel cage.

This book review first appeared in Asian Age March 26 2023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s