This story has been filched shamelessly from one of my classroom lectures.
There once was an IAS officer, in some remote district up in the hills. He had just been commissioned into the service, and was full of enthusiasm as young officers are wont to. In fact, he decided that he wouldn’t be like the officers that were the reason for the nation’s ire: lazy, corrupt and worst of all, inflexible.
But as soon as he entered the office, he realised the reason for why the bureaucracy was the way it was. He was part of the small office, called the Collectorate, which was responsible for more than a million people, and as part of his job, he had to go through some 300-odd files every month, i.e. almost upto 1000 pages a day. Apart from this, he had to see a steady stream of people every day, people who would come and camp outside his office for, sometimes, days on end. He would have hear their problems, sometimes dispense quick justice, rush his police to the area to stop the violence that should have been stopped the last week. What should a person in this situation do…?
He quickly realised that he was working the way he was, because of the situation around him. He had to flip through the files he was supposed to read carefully, or delay the important ones for months on end, because there were too many of them. He was helpless; he either had to speed-read or be left behind in the paper-chase.
Glancing at the report, in front of him on the desk, he looked at the report’s title. It was titled ‘The Bum Report’. Hmm.. ‘The Bum Report’. I wonder what it is for… ‘THE BUM REPORT’! What the hell is this?
Reading through the report, the officer figured out, that the report’s original title was ‘The Drum Report’, and pulling out files from the archives, he found out that the Drum Report became the Bum Report, one rainy day 30 years ago, when a drop of water fell on the D. Reading through the old files, he found out that the Drum Report reported on the condition of the drums in the district, since they were the primary means of long-distance communication in the district.
But now they had mobile phones, which means this report was redundant at around the same time it changed it’s name. So he sent memos to everybody concerned declaring the report redundant. For the next month, he met no-one, and gave the police chief free-rein in the district. He sat with each and every of those 300 reports, and pruned that number down to 30, which meant he had more time to do other things.
I have spent more than a couple of long internships at government departments during my engineering days. At both times, I have been singularly surprised by one thing: the qualifications of my boss. The top echelons of one of the organisations were even all Ph.D.s.
The other thing common to the internship was the itching desire to ask them, what they were doing in a decrepit place like this. I mean there are worse people in the private sector, but look at the work they do as compared to you. If you go over to the other side, you would have been remarkably rewarded. I never did gather the courage to ask them why.
I did figure out the answer to another question that has stumped me and a lot of other people: How is it possible the government is the way it is, when they get some of the smartest people to work for it? Just look the Civil Services Entrance Examination, and the final interview panels; it should be sufficient to clear all doubts that the entry barriers are set indeed very high.
Let’s go back to the story above. The point of the story is not that Mr. Super IAS solved a problem in a determined and persistent manner, but that the ‘happily ever after’ episode that you expect from a story like this doesn’t exist in this scenario. There is absolutely no incentive to perform the way the officer in the story did. The officer in the above story, instead of getting an increment, might have been lambasted by his senior for introducing change. He could have worked the way he was when he began, and he would be given all the promotions, increments, transfers due to him without doing anything outside the general scheme of things to improve the lives of people. Then why should he go out of his way to do that?
Of course, you could also see the problem from the other way around, which is the better-understood version of this problem. It is next-to-impossible to remove an IAS officer from active service on grounds of incompetence. He could be overlooked for promotions, his increments could be denied to him, or could be transferred to amazingly remote places, but the club IAS works very well to help any one of their own who needs help. So then why do they even need to do the bare minimum?
On top of that, most promotions are decided on the basis of seniority, and when the candidates to be judged are from the same batch, the rank in the Civil Services Entrance is used. Now the use of this metric could be justified since you cannot compare the work between two civil servants in two different fields, and seniority could be the only differentiating mechanism. But sometimes the case is pretty obvious, and the standard metric need not be the rule. (It is heartening to note, that this is certainly not the case for the top jobs of the bureaucracy, but this is usually because the politician involved needs to have a comfort-level with the appointee. Again, this is debatable.)
On the other hand, urban legends abound how excellent bureacrats are ruthlessly transferred from one city to the other, because they do not cosy up to the minister/MP/MLA involved. Here excellence is not just not rewarded, but actually punished.
This is not to say that those who do exceptional work are not recognised. They are at multiple avenues including the media and they do come into the public cynosure albeit for a brief time, but these are as I said, the exception. Most of such work are borne out of individual zeal or desire to leave a mark on the society, or something on whose account they have suffered.
I think the problem lies in the very reason for the inception of the IAS and the other civil services. Their mandate was to help the government govern, never to help the people; if that happened, it was purely coincidental. But the IAS and others, are in my opinion, are trained to be highly qualified and efficient paper-pushers, who at times, rise beyond the call of duty to help people too.
Because of the way the entire system is structured, the entire system stagnates, and the public resents every increment in the Pay Commissions. The Sixth Pay Commission is going to hand over a significant portion of our GDP to everybody working for the Central government, and nobody is going to see the results, that would have been expected if it was a private-sector company.
To top it all, XLRI recently released a report that the CTC for the Central services, is actually 2.5 to 4 times the monetary compensation they get. And recently, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha brought it to our notice that our MPs decide their own salaries. 🙂
Mind you, I am not a raring anti-establishment person. I am all for government: freedom, beyond a point, is overrated for a person who enjoys his creature comforts. It is just that I am trying to emphasise that the government needs to look at changing its focus from just existing to govern, to serving the people of its country. In that sense, it desperately needs to see how they can incorporate the sense of merit in the compensation scheme, instead of just adding a multiplier to all the salaries, and how they can improve the scheme of promotions. Given the right environment, these smart people could do wonders for the nation. A case in point: The Indian Railways, in recent times.