Sardar Patel famously called the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) the “steel frame” of India’s government machinery. He, and many others, viewed the IAS as the solid foundation upon which the rest of the bureaucracy rested, a bastion of the nation’s best and brightest providing unfailing support to others in government. To this day, even with vastly increased opportunities in the private sector, the IAS continues to attract India’s best and brightest. As Harvard’s Lant Pritchett notes, would-be IAS officers must undergo an application process that makes getting in to Harvard look like a walk in the park. Yet, despite the exceptional talent within the IAS, the institution no longer serves the greater interest of the country. Instead, there are reasons to believe that it might be hampering the country’s development.
These two positions – that the IAS itself is composed of exceptionally talented individuals and that it is hampering the development of modern day India – may seem slightly at odds, but they co-exist comfortably in this country. To see why, we must first look at the origins of the IAS or the Indian Civil Service, as it was then called. The British, of course, designed ICS and the rest of the government machinery around it with the explicit goal of allowing a very small number of men to control a very large population. To this end, they concentrated all power and authority in the hands of these very few men with the rest of government acting as a support structure.
Yet what is great for an imperial empire is not always ideal for an independent federal country. A quick visit to a district collector’s office is enough to demonstrate this. As anyone who has ever visited a district collector can attest, the scene is maddening: on a typical day, he engages in non-stopping screaming and signing while an endless stream of petitioners, sycophants and supplicants are marched in and out at a frenetic pace. A successful IAS officer today is seen as a hero, single-handedly fighting the odds when he should just an efficient and effective bureaucrat making the best of the resources available to him.
The obvious question one asks after such as visit is “why is there no one in the office to whom the district collector can delegate some of this work?” The answer to this question has to do with the stranglehold the IAS exerts on nearly all key positions in government. Since most top positions in government are reserved for members of the IAS or one of its sister services, the career and advancement opportunities for those outside these services are very limited. In most cases, the best that a talented, ambitious person serving in government who has not started out in the IAS or one of its sisters services could hope for is that after decades of dedicated service he or she is be promoted to a level which IAS officers attain at a relatively early stage of their careers. Given these incentives, it is no surprise that so few talented people choose to join the state services that constitute the vast majority of posts in the state implementation machinery.
A second, more subtle reason for the relative lack of talented government officials outside of the IAS is that the existence of the IAS absolves state governments of the arduous task of building capacity in government departments. Rather than engage in the difficult and politically dangerous task of recruiting staff for government departments, state governments often ignore departments, knowing that they can rely on the presence of an IAS officer to ensure that the department (or a district administration) operates with a minimum of competency. Readers may object that when state governments take an active role in selecting bureaucrats the results are not always positive. Yet this is a natural and necessary aspect of both federalism and development. The fact that mistakes (and perhaps even a little fraud) may be committed along the way does not serve as sufficient argument that state governments should not take a more active role in building the capacity of state bureaucracies.
Lastly, while IAS officers are typically highly competent at their assigned positions even if the rest of their office is not, there are some instances where IAS officers are not at all suited for the role they play -- where just being really smart and hard working is not enough. This is particularly critical to positions which require domain specific knowledge such as those managing large IT projects or say, running an airline, but also holds true for those running multi-crore rupee health or education programmes.
How then, should the civil service be improved? Arvind Panagariya, professor of economics at Columbia University and an expert on the Indian civil service has two sensible suggestions. First, more top positions in government should be opened up to competition from candidates outside the IAS. Currently, most of the top spots at both the central and state level are effectively reserved for IAS officers either by being designated “cadre” positions, and thus only open to IAS officers, or by being open only to a list of empanelled candidates which very rarely includes non-IAS officers. At a minimum, all top secretary level positions should be opened up to competition from at least the state services, if not to outside candidates. In any democracy, ministers should be allowed to choose their top deputies. Going further and opening up all positions at the joint secretary level is also worth considering.
Second, specialization should be encouraged. Currently, in decisions regarding promotion and staffing, general competency is valued much more than specialized skills. This may have made sense in the early days of independence but today Indian bureaucrats must oversee the administration of a vastly complicated government apparatus and regulate an equally complicated private sector. In this context, specialized skills are an absolute necessity for an effective civil service. One way of encouraging specialization would be to place a greater weight on candidates’ skills and experience in staffing decisions. A stronger measure would be to assign IAS officers to different departments early in their careers so that they develop specific domain expertise.
Reforming the IAS will not be easy. The IAS is possibly the most powerful professional association in the country and will likely be resistant to any reform that encroaches on its authority. Yet the stakes are high enough that reform must be attempted nevertheless. In previous columns we have debated the advantages and disadvantages of potential reforms to specific policies but, at the end of the day, it is the top bureaucrats who are responsible for implementation of these policies. Over the long term, improving the civil service will have a much larger effect than any specific policy reform.
Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a development professional with over six years of experience in India, UK and Ghana. Doug Johnson is a development consultant with experience in microfinance, impact evaluation, and payment solutions. Doug has worked in China, India, and Nepal.