Creating policy boldness

The difference between authority and responsibility in the first five years of a career in the civil services and of one in the private sector could not be more profound. While private sector types like me were photocopying, drafting minutes of meetings, makes cold sales calls and building useless but complex spreadsheets — my civil servant friends were running districts, allocating huge amounts of money, handling law and order. But as time marches on, a curious divergence emerges among people the same age — as private sector people get more successful, their risk-taking ability greatly increases. But as civil servants get more successful — success defined narrowly as rising to higher levels — their risk-taking ability decreases exponentially. This is a problem; the top jobs in any organisation — government, private or non-profit — need courage more than intelligence. India is ill served by bureaucrats like the one who recently agreed that what I proposed would have huge employment and employability impact but he could not sign off on it because there was no precedent. My somewhat rude retort was that India would not have been independent if Gandhiji had proposed independence to the ICS, since there was no precedence for self-rule. Wicked problems need breaking with the past. While administrative reforms are well documented, I'd like to make the case that greater policy boldness could come from giving the top jobs in civil services — secretaries to the Government of India, chief secretaries of state governments, heads of regulatory authorities — to people when they are 45 years old rather than 58.

Of course, risk aversion must be higher among civil servants than in the private sector; there are unintended consequences of quick or radical change in large and complex systems like government. The status quo captures wisdom over time so there is merit in following rules, process and procedure. But this structural risk aversion is currently amplified by the emergence of seven backseat drivers (the CBI, the CVC, the CAG, the media, the NGOs, the NAC and the judiciary) that have made bureaucrats, particularly those close to retirement, unwilling to leave fingerprints on anything not done before.

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