Udhay Madhukar in India Today –
The Narendra Modi government created a flutter among bureaucrats recently when nine of the 42 officers from the 1999 batch whose names had been put forward for empanelment were not selected.
Most of them, as usual, had outstanding grades. The reasons behind the rejection ranged from poor performance on delivery to a lack of personal integrity.
This was not an arbitrary decision but part of a massive reform process initiated in the selection procedure in June 2016.
“There is a premium on competence and honesty for the first time in the history of the All-India services,” a top bureaucrat involved in the process said.
Like in the past, the Central government committee of experts, comprising former bureaucrats, will recommend candidates to be empanelled for the post of joint Secretary, Additional Secretary, Departmental Secretaries and Chief Secretary.
These officers will be first short-listed on the basis of their grades in Annual Performance Appraisal Reports (APAR).
According to the new procedure, however, the committee will also prepare pen portraits of these officers in a seven-page format with multi-source feedback (MSF) based on four criteria-functional skills such as handling of finance, regulation, technology, execution and policy-making; domain expertise in sectors like economy, energy, agriculture, education and tourism; behavioural competence such as communication skills, team spirit, long-term vision, humility and empathy; and financial and intellectual integrity.
“This will make it impossible for non-performing and corrupt officials to reach the top,” an official at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said.
The old method of empanelment by the expert committee had several flaws.
It examined the annual grading of an officer done on a scale of one to 10 for the last 16 years, and then aggregated these marks. The committee was allowed to moderate the final tally based on its feedback of the candidate.
The committee could marginally increase or decrease the final tally, as the case may be, if not satisfied with the marking.
“The whole process was not positive selection but negative disqualification. In a way, it was elimination rather than selection,” a professional in the PMO, who played a key role in finalising the new selection criteria, said.
The system failed miserably to distinguish between the Good, the Average and the Bad because officers usually gave high grading to their junior colleagues, either in a spirit of camaraderie or so as to not upset the apple cart.
Till 2006, a senior official had to evaluate his or her junior’s performance under three grades – Outstanding, Very Good and Good.
This used to be a confidential process.
However, since 2006, thanks to a court order, the senior officer is bound to show his or her junior the comments written in the appraisal form.
This ‘transparency’ resulted in most officers giving superlative grades to juniors.
The provision was also exploited by certain states such as Madhya Pradesh, which often gave 10 out of 10 to its officers so that the state could get the maximum number of bureaucrats empanelled.
The Union government is now working on changing the methodology of grading.
“The method of writing the APARs-which remains the preliminary basis for selection-is also being changed to be more meaningful,” an official said.
The Personnel Department database has been completely transformed by integrating different sets of data for a comprehensive 360-degree evaluation of officers.
Last year, the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat examined the APARs of 1250 All-India service officials, including IAS, IPS, Indian Postal Service, Indian Revenue Service and seven services of the Railways, and empanelled 750 of them.
“With the new criteria of merit and quality being applied, the number this year may come down to 550. Fortunately, we have a good talent pool. Otherwise, we would have fallen short on officers,” a bureaucrat said.
The new system also specifies norms for conducting the MSF.
It requires one of the expert committee members to speak to one senior, one junior and one from the peer group of the officer applying for empanelment and take feedback on the three criteria. A fourth feedback has to be organised from a person who has dealt with the officer as a customer as an interface.
These feedbacks have to be filled in a seven-page format, with the names of the four interviewees. Finally, the member must mention whether he or she recommends or strongly recommends the candidate for empanelment.
According to sources involved in the process, this is done to sketch a complete and precise picture of each candidate, portraying their personality and specifying the jobs for which they are most suited.
Meanwhile, of the nine officials rejected for empanelment last month, one has the reputation of being a very competent official and had earlier been posted in Delhi.
But there was negative feedback on his integrity.
Another officer got a high rating on integrity but was seen to be poor on delivery and leadership qualities. A third officer was rejected because his motivation levels were found low in high-pressure jobs.
New Zealand ticked
Before applying the new selection method, the government studied top management practices of several countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore and New Zealand, and also of private entities like McKinsey & Company, General Electric and the Tata Group.
The New Zealand government’s method of selection was found to be the best and the most updated while the US system had not undergone any major change in the past two decades.
The Union government is also simultaneously working on reforms in the selection process of the Chairman, Managing Directors and Directors of nationalised banks.
Several previous governments at the Centre also talked of ushering in administrative reforms in all-India services but much of this remained mere lip service.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen to introduce reforms and even took presentations from the Personnel Ministry. But nothing came of it.
Prime Minister Modi was aware of the flaws in the selection process but opted the reforms in phases. First, he informally dismantled the Transfer-Posting Raj in the capital, which thrived on political patronage. To do the job, he brought in P K Mishra as Additional Principal Secretary and made him Head of all appointments.
The no-nonsense officer was Principal Secretary when Mr Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister.
“The PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat became unapproachable for favour-seeking officials,” a senior bureaucrat said.
For the first time, an informal, due diligence of the candidates to be empanelled in Delhi was introduced. The officers involved in the selection exercise for empanelment were required to make informal inquiries about the candidate before empanelling him or her.
“The new method of empanelment and posting will change the essential character of the services when it comes to result-oriented work. All those who want merit to be the only criterion of selection should cherish it,” Mr Mishra said.
Along with him, Cabinet Secretary P K Sinha, PMO Additional Secretary Bhaskar Khulbe and Personnel Ministry Establishment Officer Rajiv Kumar played key roles in introducing the new method, braving much opposition from a section of the bureaucracy more comfortable with the status quo.
The study on the new principles of selection was mainly done by a professional in Modi’s core team, which made several presentations to officials in Personnel Ministry.
The above is an edited version of an article that appeared in India Today website.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Additional Principal Secretary P K Mishra and Principal Secretary Nripendra Misra (Picture Courtesy: India Today)