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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Yes, minister, our civil services need a reboot

At last, our bureaucracy is in for a shake-up, thanks to Mission Karmayogi. The proof of its success will lie in eventual outcomes. Let’s not rely on centralized oversight for this, though

Doubtless, many of the country’s civil servants have delighted in the perpetual look of bewilderment on the face of Jim Hacker on the British comedy show Yes, Minister, a fictional politician given to having rings run around him by a merry band of bureaucrats with stiff upper lips. After the serial ran on Doordarshan in the 1980s, it was half-jokingly whispered of as a “training module" for young officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Those days are long gone, the so-called steel frame of our bureaucracy has turned rusty, and, ever since economic liberalization, there has been a near consensus in the country—at least outside IAS circles—that our system of policy implementation needs an overhaul. The Union cabinet’s approval on Wednesday of Mission Karmayogi, its name taken from a traditional archetype of a person dedicated to selfless duty, thus, has raised the hope of a national bureaucracy that is adequately responsive to the country’s needs. At its core, this is an upskilling initiative for government officials that aims to fix and galvanize India’s administration. Inadequate state capacity has long held the country back. If it succeeds, every citizen would probably be grateful.

The aims of the mission are ambitious, made all the more so by the sloth and venality that the government officials have acquired a reputation for. Indeed, the system’s focus needs to be role- rather than rule-specific, coordination should prevail over battles for turf control, and IAS officers ought to be enablers instead of red-tape wrappers. Importantly, IAS cadres need to be held accountable for their work. All of this and more is on the reform agenda. As envisaged, the Karmayogi training mechanism will cover an estimated 4.6 million officials at all levels. This is a gargantuan exercise, which may explain the elaborate multi-tier command structure expected to be put in place for it. At its apex would be a Human Resource Council, headed by the Prime Minister, which shall approve and monitor various skill-enhancing programmes, as well as review the performance of employees routinely. This council will have some state chief ministers, cabinet ministers and experts from various disciplines. There will also be a commission at the cabinet secretariat level, and a special purpose vehicle in the form of an organization designed to manage the digital resources of the entire set-up and even create a market platform for training modules, should the demand and supply of such packages need a place to converge.

Given the way our bureaucracy has operated for decades, Mission Karmayogi is likely to prove disruptive. While few bureaucrats can deny the need to stay abreast of new developments in the field of governance, given the dizzying pace of change around us, the idea of being subject to continuous evaluation by a central authority could unsettle some officers. There has been some disquiet within IAS ranks over the Centre’s lateral induction of people for senior roles that involve the nitty-gritty of policy formulation. Some bureaucrats have chafed at being labelled “generalists" in a world that seems to prize specialists. Perhaps the new mission will resolve such disgruntlement. Yet, centralized supervision of such large numbers does not promise to be easy. Globally, centralization has been observed to militate against diversity of thought. And that’s vital to the governance of a country like India.

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