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Monday, May 17, 2004

There is no greater calling than public service


Our civil service is largely a product of our colonial legacy and the bulk of our civil servants at the top level continue to be recruited through the IAS, IPS and other central services. Each state is allotted its share of civil servants (1/3 rd) and the rest are recruited by the states through their own administrative service. All of them, without exception come through a highly competitive recruitment process and undergo further training to understand the administrative setup. At the best of times, these civil servants come equipped with skill sets to ensure smooth functioning of the government and are rarely equipped to be creative problem solvers in a complex, modern society.

Since Independence the role of Indian state has undergone a radical transformation. Owing to our socialist legacy the state’s role has also enormously expanded into non-core areas ranging from banking to services to transport and industry. How does a civil servant whose only professional training is to serve as a public administrator qualified to run either a Rs 20000 cr bank, or the country’s nuclear programme or be the chief executive of a major industry? In this era of technological and professional core competency, the answer is that the traditional public servant is owefully ill equipped to handle any of these critical functions. But we continue to entrust these public institutions to them and the common man continues to pay a heavy price for the resultant mis-management.

I had a wonderful time in government and know fully well how outstanding civil servants do achieve meaningful results. But given the complexities of our governance crisis, such successes are an exception, not the rule. Great talent, unimpeachable integrity and unswerving commitment to public good are precious qualities rarely nurtured and promoted in government.

The state of our civil service and the nature of our problems call for urgent injection of fresh blood. We should learn from best practices elsewhere and adapt them to suit our conditions. The strength of the American system of governance is their ability to recruit the best available talent into public service. Most of them are recruited either from the industry or academia, typically in mid career and are given a fixed tenure appointment. These individuals bring a wealth of experience and creative problem solving ability and apply them to design innovative solutions for public issues. They normally come with a fixed mandate, fulfill it and return to their original careers. It is a tribute to their system that they were able to recruit economists of the caliber of Larry Summers to give up lucrative careers for public service.

I recently had an opportunity to interact with members of Bangalore Area Task Force (BATF). The government of Karnataka has created this task force with members from industry, academia and civil society and entrusted them with the task of looking at the problems of Bangalore city in an integrated fashion and recommend appropriate solutions with a mandate to make Bangalore into a world class city. Fortunately they were able to co-opt some of the brightest people from the private sector. None of them had any idea of how the city is run or the way government functions. But in the past few years, they have applied themselves diligently to understanding the problems of the city and today they would undoubtedly be some of the foremost experts on civic problems in this country. BATF is working with various civic bodies like the city municipal corporation, city development authority, city police, local utilities and others and assisting them in implementation of their plans. The experience of BATF is a refreshing example of successful public-private partnership.

We need people who would view the creation of a world class primary health care system, and designing an accessible and equitable school education setup and establishment of a first-rate public transport system as the greatest opportunities and challenges rather than problems. There is a provision at the union level for such lateral recruitment. The states would be well advised to follow suit and provide an opportunity for the best minds of the country to apply themselves to solving public problems.

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