Dhiraj Nayyar writes: The problem with putting the civil services on a pedestal

Context: Most countries in the world have a cadre of professional civil servants, but nowhere are new entrants to the system of government celebrated like in India. It’s like the public itself hasn’t overcome the colonial legacy of the civil service being the grandest of professions.

This has consequences, and must change.

Why society has a favorable view of civil services?

Most ordinary people don’t aspire for themselves or their children to join politics which is viewed as murky, the domain of the less-educated non-professionals. But the civil services are highly aspirational. It is due to the following reasons –

For one, candidates are selected on merit based on an open examination and interview. One cannot inherit a position in the civil services, like in politics.

Then there is the job security that comes with gaining entry. Unless a civil servant does an extraordinary wrong, she has a job for life, and steady, time-bound promotions which ensure that everyone retires at the top irrespective of performance.

What are the weaknesses in the civil services?

In the perceived strengths of the civil services lie its weaknesses.

– The single UPSC examination, which most candidates take in their early or mid-20s, is treated as gospel. Often, it is used as an argument against lateral entry because unless people have passed that examination, they are deemed to not be meritorious or deserving of being in government. It is also used to determine career trajectories. Those who stood first or second in their batch while in their 20s are more likely to rise to important positions such as cabinet secretary or foreign secretary thirty years later when they are in their late 50s. Merit and competence cannot be judged by a single exam.

The permanence of the job is a problem too. Punishment for over-reach or misuse of power is a transfer, either from a weightier ministry to a lighter one or from high-profile capitals to geographically remote ones.

The result is that all civil servants, never mind their ability or competence, operate in a system of limited accountability with few incentives to perform and plenty of opportunities to use and abuse their powers.

Way forward

The civil services system needs to be brought down from its pedestal and placed at par with every other profession like elsewhere in the world. This will not happen via political diktat. It requires the weight of public opinion.

The system must be manned by capable, competent individuals. This cannot be decided on the basis of one exam.

The bad eggs need to be separated, which cannot happen when the job is for life.

Source: This post is based on the article “Dhiraj Nayyar writes: The problem with putting the civil services on a pedestal” published in The Indian Express on 8th June 22.

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