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A Weak Steel Frame

IAS officers lack management Skills to lead govt organisations

IS the ‘steel frame’ of India real steel? The performance of IAS officers suggests otherwise. The central government recently reviewed the service records of 1,143 officers of the Indian Administrative Service to evaluate who was performing and who was not.  The review covered officers who had completed 25 years of service or attained 50 years of age. Of the total of 1,143 officers, four – two from Chhattisgarh cadre, one each from Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram and Union Territories (AGMUT cadre) and Bihar cadre – were recommended for premature retirement from service “in public interest.” It is surprising that only 4 of the 1,143 IAS officers were found to be non-performers. That shows the reviewers used very narrow and traditional sets of criteria.

When we talk about IAS, whether in drawing-room conversations or in the media, we often look at them separately from the ministers. On most occasions we reserve the full force of our verbal or literary battering for the ministers, leaving the IAS officers out. But look at the paradox: why should we not talk about how much the steel frame is responsible for the mess we see all around? The steel frame is a metaphor: that means the IAS is the real strength, real life, real force of government. Do we see this strength, life and force in action to the best of our satisfaction anywhere?

When we talk of poor healthcare, we blame politicians. When we talk of schools having no toilets, we blame politicians. When we talk of irrigation or drinking water projects not taking off or being stuck, we blame politicians. When we talk of roads deteriorating in a short period, we blame politicians. Why do we not blame the steel frame? What has been the steel frame doing all the while when programmes have been failing, projects have been languishing and public works have been deteriorating? Are the IAS officers not responsible for the time overruns and cost overruns in government projects? If you look at it objectively, they are more responsible than politicians for the huge waste of public money and massive delay in completion of projects.

Politicians are a different breed, and can be a different subject altogether. Democracy is a very funny system, indeed. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can file his nomination and get elected as a member of a legislature. He can even become a minister. The Tom who has the ability to get elected as a member of a legislature might not have any ability to lead a government department, but democracy allows him to become the leader without any leadership ability. Managerial ability is missing from the eligibility criteria for a candidate. No wonder, governance has come to mean time overruns and cost overruns. What else do you expect when men with no management skills lead government departments just because they are elected representatives of the people? And politics of today makes it worse: elected Toms and Harrys demand government departments on the basis of glamour, power and budget, and the prime minister or the chief minister has to give them what they want, even though they might not have any domain knowledge or management skills.

IAS officers come to government through a different route. They are selected, not elected. There are eligibility criteria for their selection. However, these criteria do not prepare them for the responsibilities they are expected to carry out. Merely doing well in written exams in some subjects such as history and then in the interview does not make them good managers. Most IAS officers lack skills to conceive and make sound policies, to inspire and lead their teams, to closely monitor project progress and to keep delivery schedules. The immunity their career enjoys is enviable. A chief executive or senior executive of a private company would lose their job if they allow time overruns and cost overruns, the two epidemics that plague governments. At least he will not get his bonus and increment. But nothing happens for the same guilt to civil servants.

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