August 29, 2022The Intersectionpublic policy

Create a Nitipath for the civil service

A path towards a semi-structural reform of India's administrative machinery.

Mint This is an unedited draft of my The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

At the heart of the Indian republic’s inability to deliver basic public services to its citizens is its chronic inability to address the shortfall in administrative capacity. In the past two decades, political leaders and policy analysts have chosen to side-step the complex problem of administrative reform and instead, used innovative methods like privatisation, public-private partnerships and technology to deliver public services. At the same time, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have stepped in to provide a variety of public services — schooling, healthcare, nutrition, skill development and social security — that the state ought to have provided, but is unable to.

This mixed model of public service delivery has been successful — but has come at a high cost. The civil service, in general, does not face the pressure to upgrade its numbers and capabilities. It does not face systemic incentives to change. Indeed, in many cases the civil service, especially at the lower levels, is given up as a lost cause”. Little is expected from them. Lacking motivation, training and performance management, the civil service depends on a few of its numbers to uphold the steel frame’. Many individual civil servants work exceptionally hard, face tremendous challenges and ensure that the state maintains a base level performance. But I don’t think I need to persuade you that civil service reforms are crucial.

The Modi government launched the National Programme for Civil Services Capacity Building. or Mission Karmayogi” in December 2020 to build capacity in the civil service. This effort is multi-dimensional covering recruitment, training, performance management, rewards and so on, but the government can take a page from the latest innovation in military recruitment. Indeed, many aspects of the Agnipath scheme offer a model on which to pattern civil service recruitments.

Prakash Singh, one of India’s most respected police officers, recently made the case for an Agnipath-like scheme for the All India Services (AIS), where he called for officers to be filtered out after 10, 25 and 30 years of service. This would rectify the top-heavy structure of the civil service, reward performance and create a culture of performance.

There is, in fact, a case for the government to launch a Nitipath scheme along the principles of Agnipath and the Short Service Commission for military officers.

The government can recruit four times as many candidates at the entry level without being constrained by the number of apex level positions and career paths. In other words, instead of the 600 to 1000 candidates appointed to the All India Services, we can have 4000 young officers entering service every year. Only 25% of this number will be retained after a performance review after the fourth year. What this will do is bring a lot of young and energetic officers at the junior levels, give them strong incentives to perform and give them work experience in government. The average quality of the top 4000 all-India rank holders will be not be markedly different from that of the top 1000. So a four-year review period will allow the government to get a better pick than merely exam and interview score.

Dasgupta and Kapur’s paper on the political economy of bureaucratic overload (2020)

The 3000 or so officers leaving the Union civil service after the fourth year can be employed in the State services, where there is currently a crisis of selection, a massive shortfall and acute demand for better governance. Filling vacancies has a massive impact on outcomes. For instance, Aditya Dasgupta and Devesh Kapur estimate that on an average 48% of the sanctioned positions at Block Development Offices (BDOs) were vacant, and filling them would increase NREGA employment by 10%.

Kapur’s work on Indian administrative capacity is very insightful.

It is well-known that we have too few administrators, police officers, diplomats and other officials as a proportion of the population, and consistently fall short of world averages. In another paper, Kapur points out that while the federal government in the United States had just over 8 civilian employees per 1000 population in 2014, India had a mere 4.51, down from 8.47 in 1995. The capacity is especially weak at the local government level. Even if nothing else changes after the four year mark, a Nitipath scheme will be a massive improvement over the status quo in terms of sheer numbers.

Those who leave government service after four years will have good economic prospects. It is quite likely many will voluntarily choose to leave government employment, opt for higher studies and private employment. The addition of such youthful, trained and experienced managerial cadre will benefit the broader economy.

Further, along the lines Prakash Singh suggests, instituting performance reviews and exit filters every five years will create a path towards a semi-structural reform of India’s administrative machinery. A lateral entry scheme can accommodate the re-entry into the civil service of people who might have been filtered out at junior levels, but have distinguished themselves since.

Everywhere around the world, government capacity tends to lag socio-economic development. This governance gap is acute in India and is growing wider. Bridging it requires talent in adequate numbers, with appropriate training and incentives. For to be a success story, the Indian state must do its job well. Nitipath is the way to go.

Tailpiece. I must credit ORFs Samir Saran for coming up with the term Nitipath” in the course of our spirited conversation on the subject.

Update: Srivatsa Krishna alerted me to his column in Financial Express a few days ago that made the same argument.

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