Creating policy boldness

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.

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