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Policy Talk | What does the Capacity Building Commission mean for India's civil services?

Our latest episode on “Policy Talk with Yatish Rajawat”, the no-politics podcast brought to you by Centre for Innovation in Public Policy (www.cipp.in), features Dr. R Bala Subramaniam.

December 27, 2021 / 09:53 AM IST

Capacity Building Commission, the newest commission of the Government of India, has been set with overarching target of improving government performance. It is referred to as the custodian of civil services capacity building reforms aimed at making Karmayogis.

To understand what this means and the role and functioning of this new commission, we our joined by Mr R Balasubramaniam (Balu) with us who is a member of the Capacity Building Commission. He has worked in the nonprofit area in the private sector as a consultant as an advisor in HR. Now, as a Member Capacity Building Commission, he is responsible for changing mindsets in the bureaucracy and gearing it towards a better execution. 

Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Yatish Rajawat: My first question to you Dr. Balu is that what is the objective of Capacity Building Commission and what is your role in this commission?

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Dr. R Balasubramaniam: It is a recently set up body in April 2021. The Prime Minister keeps talking about this vision for a new India. This New India includes several things. Among the several things that he talks about, one is the $5 trillion economy, Atma Nirbhar Bharat; then he talks how citizens should have ease of living it including ease of doing. He talks about how technology should enable governance. All this requires a tremendous shift in attitudes, in mindsets, and skill sets.  You can have a vision but translating it to reality the system needs to also evolve to build capacities, understand the true vision, and then deliver one. Prime Minister talks of building a Team India to deliver on this. The government of India has close to 20 million employees — 4 million are the immediate employees that we are focusing on. Then we have railways, public sector, the paramilitary forces, etc. 

“How do we build capacities in these 4 million people to begin with and see whether they can all be part of this Team India to deliver on this new vision?”  

We need to really re-define this entire space of public administration. I think the key element is government has now moved. Just after independence there was no choice but to take care of millions of people who were left out of the system, so it was a very providing government.  It was a very patronising welfare-oriented government.  As we grew and in the 90s, the post economic liberalisation scenario, the government started understanding that you do not have to keep providing and they started to, in a way, move from providing more to provisioning more and today, if you look at it, the government is no longer talking about provisioning because there also there is a hierarchy between the state and the citizens, but today the government and the Prime Minister keep saying Jan Bhagidari, partnering--“sabka sath, sabka vikaas.”

Yatish Rajawat: Where does Capacity Building Commission fit in? One of your objectives is that it will coordinate and supervise all government officers training institutes, to monitor and evaluate the implementation of plans and create shared resources. Now my interest was that it will monitor and evaluate the implementation of plan, besides training.

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: By plans what we meant is the capacity building plan.  When a state moves its minds, when the paradigm shifts from providing to provisioning to partnering, it is a completely different mindset; Prime Minister keeps talking about building people from being karmacharis to karmayogis. The understanding of a civil servant is changed now, moving from rule-based approach to a role-based approach.  The civil servants will not be able to talk of rules but talk of roles. This will not be easy. We have been talking rules for 75 years and suddenly you ask to talk about role. That is where the Capacity Building Commission comes in. So what we do is we work with every ministry and we build a Capacity Building Plan--that is the plan that we are referring. 

Capacity Building plan is built around the ministry’s goals, it is aligned towards the national aspirations that I just spelt out now- What are the capacity gaps in the system with the existing number of people who are working with that ministry to deliver on this mission? Those gaps are then mapped and we roll out a capacity building plan say, for the next six months, one year, or two years.  

These are the capacities at different levels of your people that you need to acquire to deliver on your books; we evaluate and monitor it.   

We also have functional supervision over all the training institutions--close to 800 of them--in the government of India alone. We have made sure that the quality of training and capacity that is built is relevant to the capacity building plan that we are rolling out; we evaluate it, monitor it and make sure it results in actual change and is not just another training program. We build capacities. We must remember our country is the first country which has actively set up a formal commission to actually keep looking at it on an ongoing basis. We are a permanent commission setup by the government to keep looking at capacities of civil servants; the context keeps changing, needs keep changing, citizens priorities keep changing. The government has to be responsive to people; as a measure of good governance we made a body to ensure that this happens; that is what Capacity Building Commission is all about.

Yatish Rajawat: If we ask how difficult it is to convince a meritocracy which is recruited based on a passing in exam that they one, need to upgrade their skills; second, convince them that they lack certain skills; and third, that in certain areas you actually need to not just know things but execute them as well. How difficult it is to convince the meritocracy?

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: I think it is not just the Indian bureaucracy or the Indian system. I worked in very large scale and advised large scale management programs, I have been advisor for other countries, it is not easy for anybody. Any system--even as an individual why talk of government or Indian government.When you want to say wear a mask because Covid requires you to wear a mask, we all understand the rationale, we all know it is important but we all look for opportunities to remove the mask.  We keep saying do not touch your face. I am a physician so I keep saying, “Do not touch your face with your hands so do not touch your mask with your hand.” but can you really enforce it? Change is not easy; any change is as difficult as the change you bring about and my way of looking at it is that change is not about what you are changing, change is about understanding what to preserve. So if you can understand what is good in the system and look at preserving it you at least reduce the impact of discomfort that people might have. My experience is only six months old being an insider now. I have been a rank outsider, I have been in the US, I have been outside the government, very easily criticising the government for everything that went wrong but being on the inside I realised that there are very intelligent people in the system.  

Everybody is busy all the time. Are they doing smart work is a different way of analysing it but everybody is working very hard, and I believe that most of them want to make a difference. I would say the substantial majority of them want change, want good things to happen, want to participate in national building. We cannot generalise and say they are not interested but they do not have the knowledge, skillsets and all the abilities to go deep into change management and bring it into a systemic process that is where people like me with my expertise come in and I find most of them are very willing to explore and accept. So, we are also not jumping in and making it radical. That is why like you said in the beginning we were not very well known because we are not here to be known; we are here to bring about change and sometimes not being known is what helps you bring about change.

Yatish Rajawat: Is it? Okay. As you pointed out you know that what you have experienced before entering into this role was different than what it is now, there is also a general perception between government system versus private system. There is a difference between how the government system works and how the private system works particularly on project execution, management, and time bound or time bound execution of projects you must say success to the satisfaction of the stakeholder. Having worked in both sides of the area what is your initial perception about the difference in these two systems?

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: Let’s look at the three systems. In civil society groups, the bottom line is the mission, right?  We always look at social changes and see what our mission is, and we actually work under tremendous resource limitations so we learnt to make ourselves efficient.  We have no choice with limited resources. Public sector is a monopoly with very little measurements of success or failure in real sense determining your existence. In the private sector your bottom line is money. You do not make money in your marketplace, you go bankrupt, you are closed down, so the market determines your existence, your stakeholders determine your existence. In the mission-oriented sector, my governors would not fund me if they do not see an impact to the ground. If you do not run a school properly or hospital properly, they are not going to give me a cheque. Even in government it is not like that I get my salary whether I perform or not. The government standards of accountability set up are very high, but I think they are certain structural limitations in the public system.  The first structural limitation I believe is the lack of interest or lack of intent or lack of participation of citizens themselves in demanding accountability.  I think the public sector accountability comes not by the fact that I am getting a salary so I should respond to the system, but by the fact that my stakeholder, the citizen, keeps putting pressure on me. 

The second is structurally the constitution is so protective of civil servant. Maybe when the founding fathers decided it, or when Vallabhai Patel argued for it, he felt that they should be immune or insulated from political pressures. That is why he said they should be so independent, but today if a man is not performing throwing him out of the system is usually a decadal exercise even if everything clearly documented about his inefficiencies. That is why I think system delays promote inefficiency. Then let’s look at the incentive structure. As such as there is no penalisation if I do not perform, there is also no visible incentive when I perform. I have seen excellent officers who do so well very quietly, but are hardly recognised. Where do we celebrate performance, where do we celebrate the good ones, even as we are very harsh on the not so good ones?

Yatish Rajawat: According to system, the system precludes from public declarations of performances. A couple of years back when I was running a newspaper group I had set up a system for evaluating DCs at district level. I was told by the department at that time that becomes unfair for you to award district level officials because it is looked down upon within the civil service society to appreciate anybody publicly for just doing the job. I said no, it is important for them to be recognised and awarded because it is an incentive for them therefore to do better. I completely understand this part of the issue which you are pointing out.

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: In the private sector you have a notice board for employee of the month you go to small Starbucks you will have there are hardly six employees and one person’s photograph saying the best employee. In government do you put the best DM's photograph? Do you put the best joint secretary’s photograph? We do not even celebrate goodness; this system also needs to wake up and say the public sector is doing public service we demand public service of them, we make them accountable but at the same time celebrate the good public service. I think it is a mixture. Society is equally responsible as much as system is responsible to deliver that is a way I look at it.

Yatish Rajawat, One of the way to build capacity is the lateral entry of experts into the system. We have seen some lateral entries over the last couple of years.  But Lateral entry is two ways: it is new experts moving into the government system and government civil servants moving out into the private sector to learn skills like project execution, project management or some technical skills, engineering skills, which they may not have. While we have seen some movement, on the lateral entry to the government system we have not seen any movement out so there seems to be something lacking here. What is the challenge here Dr. Balu?

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: I am just trying to understand the system. We just had one experiment of nine people getting in and I think one person quit immediately and eight are there and reasonably very early days to measure— nobody has measured it. See all of us have an opinion, but we do not have empirical evidence whether they are working or not. I met some of these people— joint secretaries who came in naturally. Some of them are extremely brilliant and they could have done so well in the private sector; any system when it is disrupted with a new entrant, is not going to accept it. It is going to take sometime for them to warm up to the life.  The government is now going to get the next batch of lateral entrants soon and it is three levels, not just joint secretary, a director, and deputy secretary, it is expanding the experiment and I am sure there is reasonable amount of inputs and you should also understand. We also need to question ourselves you know whatever said and done in a regular system accountability framework are stronger. The man is going to retire in government, it will hold him accountable. Somebody is here for five years or ten that means the standards of accountability have to be real. UK has done experiment with lot of private people as part Time workers. 33% of the employees of the UK civil services are part time— they come three days a week that brings an enormous value right. You are also working somewhere else you bring that knowledge here you want to take that knowledge there. That is one experiment. Singapore has done some excellent experiments like what we exactly explain now. They call it secondment. They go into the private sector 26 months to one year and come back to bring valuable price. Why not an employee from civil aviation ministry go work in a large airline like Indigo or Vistara, learn the challenges they are facing the problems they were in and come in, but if we look at our mindset we always look at those people who go there and come back with suspicion. India has done this; it is not that India has not done this. In the past we have had people seconded to private sector to NGOs etc they have gone out and come back but we always look at as you know people get seconded to world bank, IMF and other places. Two kind of challenges arise, one we look at them with suspicion and say these guys are going to have conflict of interest they are going to sell the government away. The second biggest problem is personal, senior officer sometimes have the mindset: that my salary is Rs 2 lakhs this month and his man goes to private sector you get Rs 5 lakhs a month it is unfair. I think all these challenges are there, but at the commission we want to really look at it very empirically and see what are the advantages, how does the state benefit, are there real value in there, can we mitigate in circumstances where we can actually define boundary lines where these conflicts can be minimised and we have incentives. In our country we celebrate government jobs but we do not celebrate public service--there is a difference.

Yatish Rajawat: Yeah, millions yearn to be in a government job but we actually do not appreciate government servant as much as we should. Coming back to the point of you know movement to private sphere, is particularly important in regulatory bodies, which are managing, which are controlling a particular sector like aviation. It is important for the Airport Authority of India to actually go and work in an airline but then when he comes by we look at it with suspicion and the system does not allow to move him out because they feel the system sees it as an anomaly, it sees something wrong. It is a hypocrisy of sort that people will not work in their best interest, we assume that the people will only have good intention and good intentions will therefore result into good outcome while market determines that their good intention do not result in good outcome.  There has to be a system, which has to support that outcome. How is the commission being accepted by the system per se?

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: The setting up of the commission means there is a hunger for capacity. The training institutions are reaching out to us and saying please help us out to make us better. It is a good experience because I came with a stereotype that government is mediocre, their people are all lazy, they do not work--I think I am happy to be proved wrong until now. People are willing to accept change and people are willing to explore and we have a very collaborative approach. We are not here to tell people what to do we are just here to tell people options that this is the one way to do these things better and we are right now addressing the low hanging fruits of capacity. When we start addressing more complex issues like systems change or when you start looking at work place, rules, regulations etc that is going to be a new ballgame play. I think by that time we would have established a credibility in terms of our building capacities.  We are focusing on two three things very simple: first, are people motivated to even do public services, that is a karmyogi thinking right, moving in from karmachari to karmayogi. 

Yatish Rajawat: How do you find that the person motivated enough?

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: For the first time in the history of the country, we are going to run an engagement survey or public servant queries and then that is going to be the starting point and then we are constantly talking. Everyday I meet officials from different levels, understanding from them that is what we have been doing from six months, just soaking it all and getting first hand inputs from actual people who matter.  Numbers are large, but I know that we can only do group-focused discussions and collect data from engagement surveys to find it out.

Yatish Rajawat:  Is it important for you build a platform for training because most of these courses are available in the open source area I mean like Coursera or edX has these courses even an upGrad for that matter.

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: We need context right here, just the Indian context. I think the key part of it was focusing on to the Capacity Commission first is the motives of the person, how to build a motivation program. Second is means, the tools, skill set, the tool kit and third is create the opportunity. You are very motivated, you may have the abilities but if you are not posted to the place where you can’t use the skills, it is going to be wasted. 

We will be doing HR audit to understand this to map it out and start placing right people in the right place to the right skill sets. Coming back to the next question, the group A officers of the country are only 30,000 whereas the group B and group C the rest of the 4 million, but most of the training goes for group A. The group B and group C investments are very-very minimal. 

A training policy was developed in 2012 and I must say it is a fairly well-done policy. We are going to revise it now, but the last one we had was in 2012 though if somebody had gone back, read it and implemented it, they would not have needed a Capacity Building Commission office and the government is spending towards 2.5% for the establishment cost on training it is going to put that kind of money. We have 800 institutions spending close to Rs 16,000 crores a year on building capacities. At the Capacity Building Commission, we are going to focus on group B and C.  

The government into the special purpose vehicle for the IGOT platform, is not about rediscovering the wheel. It is a single learning management system, which would also incorporate various content providers. It could be edX Coursera. They have to do it on our terms, so everybody loves Indian data and take it out of the country, but they do not want to do things for India, here that is where Commission comes in. We curate, we will make sure that they are good enough for India.  We will not tolerate mediocre material or second rate material. Our training institutes’ capacities will be built and they will have lot of contextually relevant material out there. Why should we learn about international cases when India can offer cases to the world with Indian examples.

Yatish Rajawat: Motivation will also be higher.

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: Absolutely. We think that is our role in the commission to make this connect, de-silo people. Today government is taking whole of nation approach. I think that is a very different paradigm and so once all these things sink in collectively, I am very confident in a year to two from today you will start seeing impact. You are in the policy space and I will even say that people like you should start measuring this change and in a year or two from today, you can start seeing ease of living of citizens go out because of all these changes happening.

Yatish Rajawat: You think so? I mean that ease of living would improve in a year’s time?

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: I believe so, I do not just think so.

Yatish Rajawat: That’s good. I mean from moving from ease of doing business to ease of living effectively improves not just businesses but it improves the life of the citizen and Prime Minister kind of putting that as a target and objective is I think is really aspirational from a system perspective. Thank you very much Dr. Balu for sharing your views with us. 

Dr. R Balasubramaniam: Thank you so much.
K Yatish Rajawat is a public policy expert and the CEO of Center for Innovation in Public Policy
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