Why are civil servants busy oiling the wheels and not seeing where the engine is going? The short answer is that is what they are trained to do.

The proposed lateral entry for 10 identified posts on contract at the level of joint secretary to bring in “fresh ideas and new approaches", opening so-called cadre posts to other services and persons from society, is in line with global trends. For instance, the post of London Metropolitan Police Commissioner was advertised in 2016. Unfortunately, the debate has focused on selection procedure, not the implications for governance.

The related proposal of the prime minister’s office for allotment of service and state cadres on the combined basis of Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) results and performance in the 100-day foundation course could be a significant development, if both initiatives lead to a new approach to training, which is the success factor for public administrative reform.

In October 2017, Narendra Modi spent a day with 360 officer trainees of the foundation course and encouraged them to study and research governance issues in depth, so that they could understand them well. He stressed the need to develop a national vision. However, the stated objectives of the foundation course are a feeling of pride and behaviour: to foster greater cooperation and coordination among various public services by building an esprit de corps, and to promote all round development of the personality of an officer trainee—intellectual, moral, physical and aesthetic. The course does not stress, for example, joint research on governance to bring out a shared understanding and impact on national goals.

The mission statement of the academy has been adapted from business schools with a short-term focus on tools to do well at work rather than on what it means to lead and whom they are meant to serve. The statement focuses on a caring, ethical and transparent framework, with the core value of serving the underprivileged with integrity, respect, collaboration and professionalism. These remain good intentions relevant for any organization. The curricula relies on a descriptive sectoral framework reinforcing vertical silos rather than analytical horizontal communication and cooperation. The National Training Policy, 2012, adopts a “competency-based approach", which does not address the tension of forcing missions into poorly fitted processes that the prime minister stressed.

While the 150-year-old principles of merit remain important, how well civil servants accomplish the government’s mission and how they do so are of equal importance. Any reform should fit the core principles of merit to the challenges of public service.

First, developing effective user-focused digital services is now necessary. As citizens easily connect effectively with each other in real time, they expect the same end-to-end services from their administrators; social media is not the solution. For example, in data-driven social service programmes, efficiency takes precedence over equity and error-rates discriminate against the underprivileged. Assumptions amplify biases in the use of algorithms, with failings classified as technical issues; Aadhaar is an example. Public servants need to understand the potential and prejudices that go into the design of the software as it substitutes for extensive field visits that were earlier required. Relying on the promise of technology ignores its limitations in serving the citizens, enforcing laws and analysing policy options.

Second, preventing problems and solving them when they occur, even with incomplete information, is important. For example, issues of poverty and inequality are no longer related to land ownership but stretch across many sectors, including technology-driven structural change. There is no rural-urban divide but a continuum of aspirations; defining the problem is half the solution. The impact of a policy across a diverse nation has to be understood.

Third, solutions must not shy away from radical restructuring. Being “strategic" is not just about opening a factory or making a highway. It requires appreciating political, economic and social consequences, the spectre of unemployment or the causes of farmers’ protests, urban slums, tribal discontent and violation of laws. Distribution issues remain important. These could range from what it is like to be living without electricity, water and education, or reasons for an environmental protest and the impact of growing inequality. In most cases, civil servants really consider symptoms and not causes of problems as if the system itself is the best possible one and there are no other ways of governance.

Fourth, human resource management concepts taught by professors from business schools treat human beings like technological or financial resources to be used to establish a successful organization, or even ignore citizens in achieving a mission. The corollary is that civil servants consider themselves as part of an elite, with the moral consequences of actions as mere afterthoughts for which “integrity," “ethics" and “social responsibility" are brought into the equation.

Fifth, accountability, the need for a system that holds administrators accountable for both results and the public interest, is central. For example, case studies of tension between civil servants, and between them and politicians, business and society should be discussed to better understand responsibility. Similarly, the human and economic cost of delay and the importance of the rule of law has to be imbibed. These issues certainly must not be treated as challenges and then ignored in practice.

Civil servants must understand that there are many different solutions and they must have the confidence to be innovative, yet always serve the public interest.

The duration of the foundation course needs to be increased to 300 days. The UPSC should award marks on the basis of an exam, with a degree in public administration and a condensed foundation course instituted for lateral entrants.

Mukul Sanwal was director, UP Academy of Administration, and has served in the IAS and the UN. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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