Do private sector ‘meritocracy revolutions’ show the way for civil service reforms? – Observer Research Foundation

A drag-and-drop approach towards meritocracy in the public sector will be hard to achieve as both the private sector and the public sector vastly differ.
A recent article in a lead newspaper titled ‘Karamachari To Karamyogi’ argued that meritocracy in the private sector provides a lesson for civil service reforms that governments should emulate. It put forth that three meritocracy revolutions had recently happened in the country—the IPL for cricketers, streaming platforms for actors, and private equity for entrepreneurs. The reason behind these revolutions was the shift of power from vertical hierarchies to horizontal networks that value talent. It further argued that while meritocracy in civil service selection was uncontroversial, the lack of a proper performance management system allowed no differentiation based on performance. As a result, low productivity individuals continued to hang on in the service. The article advocated lateral entry and a steep reduction in ministries, departments, and civil service numbers. The article found great merit in the Capacity Building Commission and hoped that a bold human resource reboot will deliver a civil service that is both creative and strategic.
The ‘Karamchari to Karamyogi’ reference in the article was to the ‘Mission Karmayogi’ launched by Government of India in 2020. The mission aimed at overhauling the current post-recruitment training mechanism of the officers and employees and ready them for future challenges. The Capacity Building Commission, set up in 2021, was charged with the responsibility of achieving that transformation. The Commission envisions life-long learning and wishes to create ‘optimal learning opportunities for each civil servant with the objective to build an agile and future-ready public service’. This, it hopes, will transform the learning ecosystem of the Indian civil services and make it a ‘smart, accountable, citizen centric and effective public service’.
Some of the solutions that most such articles propose are in theory applicable and could make the civil services more efficient. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission, set up in 2005, with a view to suggest civil service restructuring made a string of recommendations, some of them quite radical. However, many of the recommendations were found ‘politically difficult’ by successive governmental dispensations, and therefore, were not received with any great enthusiasm. Governments that are in power deal with realpolitik, an aspect that theorists forget to consider. Sometimes, they tend to paper over some basic differences between the public and the private sector and overlook the complexities in which the civil service works, particularly in this country. These need to be properly understood and ought to be taken into account before suggestions on civil service reforms are made.
The private and public sectors are vastly different areas driven by dissimilar objectives. The former works in an environment of open competition. It must, therefore, attain great efficiency, meet emerging challenges in the external environment, make quick decisions, and deliver profits. Whereas seeking greater efficiency and countering challenges are common threads running across both sectors, the monopolistic nature of governments makes these challenges less life-threatening. The distinction gets even more pronounced when we take into account the great stress on the purity of process that governmental organisations must follow. Every decision of the government can be accessed by any citizen through an application under the Right to Information Act, and is subject to challenge in the courts of law in the form of public interest litigation (PILs). All decisions must, therefore, be made with due caution. Furthermore, every policy decision by the public authorities must be weighed on the platform of equity and must pass the test of universality and non-discrimination. Whereas governmental decisions must factor in changes in technology, management processes and the like; they cannot forget that governments are also there to provide stability.
It is for some of the above reasons that the public sector provides for reservations in its ranks, unlike the private sector. Looking at the decisions made in this regard in the country’s past decades, successive governments of the country without exception have been in favour of expanding the application of reservations and many have been held back from going overboard by the Supreme Court’s fifty percent limit. While finding fault with excessive reservation may be justified in many ways, one needs to take a careful look at the results of meritocracy itself.
The virtues of meritocracy have been paraded all over the world for centuries and many prominent thinkers since Confucius and Plato have backed it with arguments. In the context of India and its bureaucracy, there have been repeated comparisons with meritocracy, especially with China and Singapore. Unfortunately, while meritocracy, in theory, makes great sense, there have been innumerable examples that have shown that meritocracy does not seem to be equipped to take care of human weaknesses. The conversion of India’s flexible Varna system into a rigid caste system grounded on birth that wreaked great social havoc and injustice has been there for all to see. In the USA, just three law schools—Harvard, Yale, and Columbia cornered more than half of all positions of US Supreme Court judges since the nation’s founding.
Invariably, meritocracies have been seen to get transformed into coteries that protect their self-interest and keep others out. Meritocracy argues the case of the concept of survival of the fittest and throws out the concepts of justice, equality, and fraternity that were established through celebrated national revolutions. It is for this reason that nations across the world adopted democracy as the mode of governance, because meritocracy was so unreliable in delivering justice to all.
In regard to a performance management system, there have been a few experiments. However, the application of any such benchmarking goes for a toss in the manner in which governmental postings are done. There is no fixed tenure for most civil servants and in several states, many could have tenures of six months or less; they can be posted in positions diametrically opposed to their area of expertise or training and can be subjected to myriad pressures to toe a particular line. In such an atmosphere, where there is a lack of discipline in the political class, bureaucrats are bound to be reluctant to take decisions or attempt to develop domain expertise.
The idea of lateral entry appears attractive in abstract. However, given the atmosphere within governments, there may not be many men and women of quality who would like to jump into the civil service foregoing private sector salaries and embrace an alien system of functioning. Since political parties have been ferociously attacking the principle of political neutrality on which the civil service has stood, lateral entry has not found many takers. There is no enthusiasm for the concept amongst the states and for quite obvious reasons.
The situation has been made more confounding by the current on-going slugfest between the Centre and the States on the sharing of IAS officers and control over them. The proposed amendment to Rule 6 of IAS  (Cadre) Rules 1954 that would equip the Government of India the right to post IAS officers on central deputation, bypassing reservations of state governments, is the latest addition to the growing list of differences between the States and the Centre. That is likely to make the civil servant’s life more difficult than what it already is.
The objectives of efficiency, professionalism, and commitment are served when the purity of the working environment is promoted by the masters—the political class. In a political atmosphere that has disincentivised learning and professionalism and has been progressively destructive of good governance, the Capacity Building Commission may have marginal utility and a bold human resource reboot that is suggested can be termed a fond hope. It will make for a good breakfast but a bad supper.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning.
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