IAS as a service: Has it performed to expectations or failed the nation?
Most people have a tendency of holding the IAS responsible for anything that goes in the country.
In recent weeks there has been a debate on whether the IAS as a service has delivered or has it failed the nation. Different viewpoints are being expressed. Indeed, there can be arguments on both sides of the balance. Indeed, there can be arguments on both sides of the balance. I personally feel that IAS has delivered despite the constraints under which it functions. Ground level realities are very different from the view from outside which many sections of the society tend to take about the performance of the IAS as a service. It is also felt that in the IAS there is complete job security and promotion is automatic on the basis of seniority and there is no objective performance appraisal system in place to determine the sustainability of officers for senior level posts. There are many who have a tendency of holding the IAS responsible for anything that goes wrong in the country.
Strangely, the general view is that the IAS as a service is very closely knit and self perpetuating and always defends itself and members of the service. This is very different from reality where IAS officers are more concerned about their individual careers rather than to think about the IAS fraternity as a whole. Far too often the IAS officers have a propensity of criticizing the service and those who are senior love to say that the ethos and values of the service are on the decline in the younger batches. I do not believe this to be true. There are the good, bad and the ugly in the IAS as there are in other professions and it is incorrect to try and give the entire service a bad name.
Some years ago in the Uttar Pradesh IAS Association some officers who became crusaders against corruption in the service organized a secret ballot to vote for three most corrupt officers in the UP cadre. This move was hailed in the media and various forums but with a negative connotation and the story went around that the IAS was a corrupt service. An act of self cleansing attempted by some officers was turned into a tool to damage the reputation of the entire service.
A colleague of mine has very rightly pointed out that many IAS officers in order to show themselves as being intellectually progressive criticize their own service. Other sections of the society then use these very utterances to condemn the IAS. Introspection and self improvement are essential but the service has enough achievements to its credit to make its members feel a sense of pride in them.
Many individual IAS officers have done outstanding work in the Districts and in policy making but, unfortunately, most of it not documented. Only recently with the advent of social media have some IAS officers begun to talk about to work done by them and the innovative way in which they have delivered good governance the service as a whole can be, justifiably, proud of itself for having played a very important role in keeping the nation together and also ensuring that the government works according to the democratic principles and the spirit of the constitution. Some IAS officers have posted on social media that no doubt the steel frame has got corroded but how do we handle the corrosive environment in which IAS officers function?
Many people, when they discuss this issue with me, are quick to point out that rules and regulations are made by the IAS and if they are hampering the working of the government then the IAS should change them. It is true to some extent and it is also a fact that the IAS officers have been responsible for modernizing many rules and procedures but they cannot change everything.
They also function under a system where the politician is the master.
One thing that has emerged from all the discussion is that there is a need for a performance based promotion system for the IAS. There is a very extensive system in existence which has been continuously improved upon over the years but it is still not very satisfactory as it does not separate the wheat from the chaff. A large proportion of officers get a very good or outstanding rating without their meriting it. The promotions are on the basis of seniority subject to unfit which means only those involved in court cases or departmental enquiries are left out. The Government of India has recently introduced a three sixty degree evaluation system for the Secretary level and other senior posts. This has resulted in almost 30% to 50% of a batch not being able to get promotion to the Secretary level.
However, the working of this system is quite opaque and has caused a lot of resentment amongst officers. My view is that there is a definite need for an objective evaluation system for the IAS which should lead to the promotion of those officers who acquire new skills and knowledge, have qualities of leadership, have good communication skills, have the capacity to motivate and inspire a team and are not scared of taking prompt decisions in public interest. Officers who deliver results and outcomes should reach the top and not those who merely push files, are risk averse and believe in maintaining the status-quo. Unfortunately, the current system encourages good file work and not delivery of results. This is a difficult exercise because in my experience I am yet to come across a truly objective performance evaluation system. There is always an element of subjectivity which can become dangerous in the current environment where the politicians are evaluating the performance of officers and there is a tendency to brand officers along lines of caste, community or perceived proximity to members of a political party merely because they have served on important posts in a particular government.
It is easy to say that an IAS officer should give free and frank advice and uphold what is correct but these days it has become hazardous to do so particularly in State Governments where the Minister or Chief Minister takes this as an indication of willful dissent and is prone to transfer you to unimportant posts or worse start an enquiry against you. Today the IAS officer has to walk the political tightrope very adroitly otherwise he could have a fall from which it would take him years to recover.
It must also be kept in mind that the basic principle of governance is to have the right man at the right place. However, rarely does an IAS officer get to work with the team of his choice. He has to give results working often with a mediocre team and facing political interference at every level.
Despite the above, several IAS officers have achieved a lot and have been shining examples of competence and integrity. There is a lot of scope for introspection, self improvement and also major reforms in the entire system of governance. However, given the ground realities it would be harsh to say that the IAS has not delivered at all or failed the nation.