The Modi government wants to reform the bureaucracy. The union cabinet has approved a civil services capacity-building initiative called “Mission Karmayogi” that will apply to 4.6 million central government employees, both higher civil servants as well as the lower-level employees. The mission talks of a shift from “rule-based” to “role-based”, “linking training and development” to “competencies”, continuous learning opportunities at every level and not just senior levels.
It talks of building progressive and imaginative civil servants who work in close coordination, not in departmental silos. The focus is on building and monitoring a continuously learning and goal-focused workforce that is more suited for current and future administrative challenges. A Prime Minister’s Public Human Resources Council would be formed to ensure things are implemented and monitored properly. The government claims it is the biggest civil service reforms ever taken anywhere if the scope of the mission is taken. A budget has been worked out as well as subscription rates that all civil servants will pay to access an e-learning platform built specifically for this.
It is an ambitious effort and a welcome one. It is also not Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first attempt to shake up the bureaucracy. His government has, since its first term, retired a large number of senior civil servants who had completed 30 years of service if they were perceived to be inefficient or corrupt; introduced a 360-degree appraisal apart from the Annual Confidential Report (ACR); and inducted specialists from outside in joint secretary, director and deputy secretary positions to bring fresh blood and ideas into the middle rungs of bureaucracy.
Prime Minister Modi, who depends on his bureaucrats quite a lot, is perhaps more focused on restructuring the administration make up than many of his predecessors. So Mission Karmayogi is -- at least on paper or on the computer screen – a welcome step. But the main thrust seems to be in assigning specific roles that match competencies, and on continuous learning at all times. A digital platform will be built with a lot of content to enable this.
The fact that the bureaucracy is in urgent need of reform can hardly be disputed. It has also been recognised by earlier governments – which had led to the creation of multiple committees headed by eminent luminaries. These committees, in turn, have recommended many things – from how recruitment and testing procedures need to be changed to cutting flab and tackling corruption. Many of these recommendations are gathering dust in cavernous government archives. They were perhaps tabled in the Parliament when they were submitted, but most of their recommendations were never considered seriously. Government lethargy and civil service aversion to change ensured that status quo was largely maintained.
Mission Karmayogi picks up the issues of training, competency mapping and targeted performance assessments and offers an architecture that will help transform them, thus improving efficiency and providing better service to citizens. The real question is: is it going to be enough? And will Mission Karmayogi address most of the problems that citizens have with bureaucracy?
Just over a decade and a half ago, in 2004, when the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA gave way to Dr Manmohan Singh led UPA-1 coalition, a committee chaired by P C Hota, who had been chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) had submitted an extremely detailed report looking at every aspect of the civil services, from induction to training to mid-career issues and problems at the highest levels of bureaucracy. The Hota committee’s recommendations were painstakingly detailed and built on other reports on various aspects of civil service reforms.
But far more illuminating was the chapter that put the observations of the Hota committee about what ailed the civil services. They were fairly scathing in tone. They talked of a civil service that had lost its neutral character, was prone to corruption, was afraid of taking bold decisions, and had become a handmaiden of politicians because of the latter’s ability to transfer government servants at will.
Civil servants were not only arrogant but also had lost touch with ground realities. The Hota committee also observed that civil servants were not result-oriented because they had no clear targets in most cases. And that, in turn, could be traced back to the fact that few ministries or departments had clear cut mission or vision statements. While the committee’s remit was only to examine and recommend for the higher civil services, the problems they pinpointed pretty well applies to the rest of government employees as well.
So how far does Mission Karmayogi go to fix the problems that were identified by the Hota committee that still plague the bureaucracy? It is far less ambitious, focusing more on improving competencies, skills, and updating knowledge of all government servants. There is also the goal of changing the structure to focus more on roles and to assign specific goals. Those are all welcome goals. But it falls short of serious reform of a system that desperately needs one.