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Collaborate or Compete: Choices for a meaningful Civil Service

The biggest strength of the civil service during the British, even later for a generation was the ‘civil service boys’ network within and also, outside the country which literally made them rock, individually and collectively.

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My advisor at Harvard used to take me out for lunch every month. Once he candidly asked me, ‘what is wrong with you guys’? Meaning, as to what was wrong with those of us in the Civil Service. I made a few guesses, but was way off the mark. You guys are never trained to be team players. His considered view was ‘Civil servants in India play only as individuals and look for personal glorification and not for their state or country’.

Then he mentioned his professional experience of working with a Chief Minister in South India on a famous IT project. He narrated how over dinner ten officers will not only have their own take on issues, but would go to great lengths to run each other down. Also, they would do so not in a discreetly, but in a way which could be thought of as direct and unprofessional. It might appear strange but it’s true that someone sitting somewhere was able to identify one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest with officers in the Civil Service. 

The biggest strength of the civil service during the British, even later for a generation was the ‘civil service boys’ network within and also, outside the country which literally made them rock, individually and collectively. British gave only token awards of Rs 1 or an appreciation letter, nothing more to officers mindful of not creating a division in their ranks. Civil servants were supposed to be idealistic and committed to the cause of public service but were not supposed to look for rewards. The intention was that you are supposed to serve the people out of commitment and not for rewards or appreciation.

When we should to train officers to collaborate we make them to compete. From our batch 35 years earlier this element of competition was introduced from their foundation training in Mussoorie itself. Grading was zealously started of each officer leading to major changes in their inter se seniority based on their grades in training. Peer learning which an integral part of the bonding process during training, obviously took a back seat after introduction of this zero sum game. While in the US the maximum value, I realized was in peer learning. The first input that I got at Harvard was that you are competing against yourself. You have to try to realize your full potential rather than worry about others. Each to himself!

If we adjudge an officer as the best officer trainee, or the best Collector, or the best Secretary, what are we trying to achieve in the process. The effort has to be to improve the average performance of the civil service by encouraging them as a whole rather than singling out people for recognition, that too through mechanisms which can at best be subjective and opaque. What does this exercise eventually aim to achieve?

This trend further got accentuated with the empanelment process which not only increased the divide, but even created a caste system within the civil service. Rather than serve the people the aspiring civil servants not wanting to be left out of empanelment, became self seekers, even bending backwards and overlooking the obvious for the fear of getting lukewarm grading in their annual reports. 

It’s not as if civil servants are not aware these issues, but either they have become passive, or are meek or have eventually given up on the system. It is convenient for their masters to play this game as officers become willing and compliant partners.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Madhukar Gupta

Dr. Madhukar Gupta, IAS 85, Rajasthan. The officer has worked as Additional Secretary, Department of Public Enterprises for five years where he has pushed the CSR agenda and also, handled Corporate Governance, Performance Appraisal of PSUs etc. He is an Engineer, MBA, law graduate and PhD in Development Economics with a Master’s in Public Administration (Mason Fellow) from Harvard and Master’s in Public Policy from Maxwell, Syracuse.

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