While one exam may be the threshold to qualify as civil servant, the officer’s promotion is based on annual performance along with seniority which ensures objectivity
Just passing one exam assures you a promotion to the top in your career and also provides a lifetime job security is the refrain I have been witnessing in various WhatsApp groups and in a spate of articles in the print media ever since the civil service exam result was announced a week ago. Many are surprised at the media space being made available to those candidates who have succeeded in the civil services exam, and in particular have qualified for the IAS. I read some opinion pieces which express surprise at this, and compare it to other countries where possibly this would not be newsworthy at all. They tend to equate this with a colonial hangover or the excessive importance to government in our society. It is not true that only candidates clearing the civil services exam get so much publicity as I have read similar stories about those who clear the JEE exam for IIT or get 100 percentiles in the CAT exam for admission into the Indian Institutes of Management and others. However, there is no denying the fact that there is no comparison to the attention being given to candidates who secure top ranks in the civil service exam. All of us are aware of the names of the girl candidates who secured the first three ranks in the exam. This is no doubt an indicator of the fact that the civil services exam is an extremely tough one where barely about 800 candidates qualify out of 8 to 10 lakhs applying and around 5.5 lakh students actually writing the exam — which means about 0.15 per cent candidates succeeding. There cannot be a more difficult competitive exam on which the aspiration of not only the candidate but the entire family is focused. Success in the exam leads to immediate recognition for the candidate and her family, and the status in society goes up exponentially.
The biggest credit must go to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) which conducts this exam in a completely fair and impartial manner and it is perceived as such by all. Such a large exam being conducted with total honesty and integrity is a great achievement, especially when we find that much smaller exams relating to selection for government posts at lower levels become subjects of allegations of nepotism and cheating. The total integrity of the civil service exam gives it a halo of merit, and even the most powerful politicians or officers cannot interfere with it. The best is selected and this ensures that the civil servants are capable and intelligent people. I recall when I qualified for the IAS and looked around my batch, I found each one of them having exceptional qualities and knowledge. In fact, when in college, we could predict which student will make it to the civil services and more often than not the prediction came true. However, commentators, while agreeing with the fact that the exam selects the best on merit, criticize that just passing one exam provides a career of more than 30 years where promotions are based on seniority and almost everybody reaches the top. They argue for a system in which the merit is assessed at different points of time in career and the wheat is separated from the chaff and only those who continue to learn and grow reach the higher levels. The argument has force in it but I must point out that things have changed and now a candidate qualifying for the IAS does not automatically become Secretary to the Government of India, or even Joint Secretary or Additional Secretary. A 360-degree evaluation system has been introduced and now for promotions to the top the government does not only rely on annual performance reports but on feedback about competence and integrity from various stakeholders. The result has been that not more than 30 per cent of a batch is getting promoted to the top. Of course, questions are being raised about the efficacy of this 360-degree system which is opaque and often arbitrary. Still, it does ensure that not everybody reaches the top. In the system before this, the assessment was done on the basis of annual performance reports which generally tended to rate an officer as good or very good. I feel that there is a need for designing an objective and transparent evaluation system but there are issues related to this which must be kept in mind.
An IAS or IPS officer, amongst all the civil servants, works directly under the supervision and control of the elected political executive who is the final decision maker. Many decisions are taken for political reasons for which it would be difficult to hold the officer responsible. If seniority as a criterion for promotion is done away with and replaced with merit it could lead to complications as the merit would be assessed by the political masters. I have seen this in Uttar Pradesh, and it is true for many other states also that officers get aligned on political grounds with one ruling party or the other by design or by default. Some officers themselves are responsible for this as they fall to the lure of good postings under a particular dispensation. However, there are a large number who get identified for no fault of theirs, simply due to the fact that in a particular government they hold important posts and are perceived as being close to the party in power or belonging to a particular caste or community. Merit then gets subsumed under the weight of political influence. Promotions, if based on merit determined in such a manner, would lead to officers close to political party in power reaching the top. As part of police reforms, it is now mandated that top three names on the basis of seniority are sent by the UPSC to state governments for appointing one of them as Director General of Police. This has been a welcome move, considering that before this it was open to the party in power to appoint an officer who is close to them as Director General.
Even in this system, the political executive finds a way out by branding a selected officer as incompetent and removing him before the completion of his tenure. The point I want to make is that both the IAS and IPS work under political masters and it is thus very difficult to have an objective system of performance appraisal. It is for this reason that seniority is worth continuing with as a criterion for promotion. It is also not true that there is no effort to upgrade the skill-set of an officer after the initial one exam. There are now at least five phases of training for the IAS at different levels of seniority, equipping them with the knowledge required for jobs that they will hold at that level. It is also not true that all officers get important postings. Each officer acquires a reputation during his career which does determine his career path. The one exam is important as it selects the cream but it is also true that an objective system of performance evaluation free from political bias and based on attainment of results and outcomes is very much required for the bureaucracy to deliver in this age of disruption.