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.

The case for younger leaders is neither new nor different between the private and public sector: it promises optimism, openness, boldness, flexibility, and energy. As Joseph Conrad wrote "I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back — the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men." But the case for younger civil service leaders in India is even stronger. People at 45 are not eyeing the alphabet soup of regulatory appointments (NDMA, CCI, TRAI, IRDA) that mostly go to retired civil servants — some for competence but mostly for political preference. Younger leaders also tackle the other handmaiden of timidity; longer tenures will allow fresh appointees to do different things rather than the same thing differently. People at 45 have more time to recover from mistakes; this makes them more open to choosing creative destruction over preservation. As Francis Bacon said, "Young men are fitter to invent than to judge; fitter for execution than for counsel; and fitter for new projects than settled business."

Having young top bureaucrats requires difficult changes. Retirement extensions should be exceptional and difficult. Post-retirement cooling off periods for government jobs should be combined with appointment criteria for those jobs that will allow competence to prevail over canvassing. We must develop a sustainable framework for lateral entries to bring in the "locked out knowledgeable outsiders" Rahul Gandhi referred to at the joint secretary level. We must break the link between pay, rank and responsibility — central government science organisations have done this well. Let salary, not responsibility, increase with years of service. But the greatest difficulty lies in measuring performance. I gave up arguing with my "1964" father about how it was silly to base promotions after 20 years of service on the year of joining when he explained that within a batch the rank in a 35-year-old exam mattered. The current system lacks a fear of falling (95 per cent reach the top rank in either the state or the central government) and hope of rising (more than 85 per cent get the top rating of outstanding in their annual appraisal). A random event — year of exam — has bred toxic social norms where few are willing to work for somebody younger or "junior". But these social norms could be sabotaged by a performance evaluation system that recognises complexity (simplistic metrics could be gamed or may be precise but incomplete), is fair (it could make 10 per cent mistakes but must have 0 per cent mischief), and institutional (why not extend the mandate of the respected UPSC from selection to career management?). We can start by restricting 25 per cent of performance ratings to outstanding; it is mathematically impossible for everybody in a batch to be above average.

India will not be able to give jobs to 10 lakh kids every month for the next 20 years without boldly preserving what is good, discarding what is not working, and creating what does not exist. Economist Albert Hirschman made the case that the failure to anticipate every unintended consequence of public policy was actually a good thing; if we could foresee all the possible negative consequences of our actions, we would become paralysed — not just as governments seeking social change, but as individuals wanting to try new things in work, love or life. In an unforgettable scene in the movie Valkyrie, Tom Cruise as the German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is plotting the assassination of Hitler and interviews an assistant with the question "I am committed to committing treason with all means available to me; can I count you in?". Stauffenberg did what he did because his job conflicted with his conscience and his inner voice rebelled against the horrible status quo. We need the equivalent of Stauffenberg in our civil services. Chances are higher that this equivalent will be young.

The writer is chairman, Teamlease Services, express@expressindia.com

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