Pay and purpose

Government employees should be better paid. But government must also be restructured and reformed.

Like certain bamboos, pay commissions bloom after long but naturally ordained spans of time. But announcing the Seventh Pay Commission for central government employees smack at the beginning of the run-up to a general election is liable to invite speculation. To avoid the charge that it is trying to please several million voters who are or were in safari suits or other government vardi, the government could have started the process months earlier. However, the government can still approach this central pay hike with some creativity. Government employees should be better paid, but what are they being paid for?

Government initiatives routinely underperform because they are locked within the steel frame of pay structures. Staffers are not offered performance-linked incentives. Poor performance has no impact on pensions and benefits, the prized portion of the lifetime package. Certainty of advancement needs to be tempered by transparent and meaningful appraisal systems. Besides, there are far too many foot soldiers and insufficient investment in generalship, though a modern administration needs exactly the opposite fewer attendants and more executives. At the lower levels, government salaries may be several times the compensation offered for corresponding posts in the private sector. At higher levels, the differential may be reversed. This is an anomaly that needs to be rationalised if the government is to attract professional talent at every level, by lateral induction, and if government jobs are not to be seen as lifelong sinecures where the main point is to secure a good pension.

Though every pay commission brings on a bout of heartburn among private sector employees, they are necessary. When existence has been reduced to scheming relentlessly to stay ahead of inflation, government employees cannot be expected to work without the prospect of periodic revisions in pay scales. In fact, the government could consider instituting pay commissions more frequently and implementing their recommendations more rapidly. This would reduce the burden of arrears, which may be larger than the hikes, with implications for the deficit. We should not complain about government spending on human resource. But as taxpayers, we should insist that the government secures meaningful returns on investment.

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