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The Changing Civil Service

Different officers have different career paths and it is quite impossible to get accurate information on officers considering elements of competition, envy, favoritism, regionalism and considerations of caste, colour and creed.

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As a matter of tradition, the Civil Service in the Indian sub-continent was not a job, like any other, but a great opportunity to serve the poor and the underprivileged. In the system even the junior most officers could discuss and even, disagree on issues of governance with their superiors. They were even encouraged to address their superiors by name even while writing DO letters. 

There have been any number of officers who have stood up to all temptations, threats and pressures to take decisions in public interest, rather than to succumb to pressure which is often possible in a democratic system. Basically, it were for this reason that the Civil Service was acknowledged as the steel frame of India. 

However, during the seventies the steel frame of India was shaken with the new idea of a committed bureaucracy which originally had been envisaged as a continuing entity insulated from all kinds of externalities. 

This trend got further accentuated with the enforcement of the empanelment system for promotions. As the superior service, promotions in the All India services earlier would happen on time, unless there were established allegations of corruption, moral turpitude or inefficiency.

These changes in the administrative fabric only encouraged officers to choose servility in place of independent decision making and idealism to move up the ladder. They began to refrain from arguing or writing against the wishes of their seniors who started exercising great influence over them as they wrote their confidential reports leading to their promotions. Unlike earlier times, promotions became entirely dependent on confidential records and more importantly, their interpretations and import which changed practically by the year. 

Rather than write what was required to be written on file, officers started writing what their superiors wanted them to write even in taking crucial decisions for the country. Although it is difficult to establish a correlation between the two, but most of the scams, scandals and major allegations of omission and commission have happened post the introduction of this new system of empanelment based promotions. 

It also created not only confusion, but also, uncertainty in the minds of the Civil Service. In addition to the unfairness, arbitrariness to excesses in many cases amongst civil servants, the eventual loss was that of the administrative and governance system. When officers start passing the buck than own up responsibility, surely the quality of governance suffers, along with increase in injustice and manipulation.  

In addition to the above stated interventions, the 360 degree system was introduced in the administrative apparatus. It has surely sent very strong signals inducing Civil Servants to be careerists than being idealists. In order to get a good 360 feedback, it is reasonable to expect officers to bend backwards to be seen as outstanding in the eyes of their superiors. They even hesitate to say no to decisions which may not be in public or national interest. 

There are officers who are independent minded, who do not socialize and are more focused on their work. Also, there is a small minority who to the envy of their peers are highly exposed, updated and could compete with the best in the world. They especially run the risk of getting lower feedback in this system which is subjective, opaque and open to bias, prejudice and opinions based on old baggage in assessing minds.

Different officers have different career paths and it is quite impossible to get accurate information on officers considering elements of competition, envy, favoritism, regionalism and considerations of caste, colour and creed. In this arrangement officers who are more upright, outspoken and forthright will be more vulnerable to unfair grading and assessment. 

Also, the officers are expected to serve the poorest of the poor and not their own fraternity. If at all any feedback is required, it should be taken from the clients or the stakeholders, not the peers whose feedback is already there in ACRs and from other colleagues in the service whose 360 inputs would invariably be based on impressions and hearsay, surely not on facts. 

There aren’t any examples of any system of empanelment or 360 degree assessment in the government in other countries or in the private sector. The 360 degree system have driven fear in the minds of senior officers who are getting more focused on promotions than on making a difference to the lives of people in the system. 

An officer who retires can only write the ACR’s of subordinates only for a month after retirement. Obviously there are reasons for not depending on feedback of retired officers on serving officers.  On the contrary, the 360 degree assessment is being done by officers who retired 5, 10 or even 15 years earlier.

A legacy of the colonial rule was regarding the confidentiality of ACR’s. To overcome this opaque system the grading of officers by superiors is now shown to them as per the new practice introduced about ten years earlier. The officer reporting upon is now answerable and accountable to his juniors. This has improved the quality of reporting in ACR’s as the officers reporting upon juniors have to go into greater detail while stating any acts of commission or omission by the juniors.

The principle of natural justice provides for an opportunity of hearing to every body who is being subjected to scrutiny. Whereas, in the 360 degree system there is not only no such opportunity of hearing, the affected officer is not even informed of the reasons for denying him his due after so many years of service. There is no scope of any clarification in case of any adverse comments in the new process. Due to this reason, the new 360 degree provisions are just not tenable, nor sustainable in any court of law. 

It would be appreciated that change should always be for the better. And these changes as mentioned earlier have not strengthened the organizational structure or culture of the Civil Service in any manner. The weaker the administrative structure in India, the lower the quality of administration and more potent the threat to the success of the democratic set up in the country. It surely is a case to be revisited by all stakeholders in governance.

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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