Yet the steel frame has now become a serious bind on badly needed reforms. As the author of a typical recent IAS history and former mandarin, Sanjoy Bagchi, puts it: “Overwhelmed by the constant feed of adulatory ambrosia, the maturing entrant tends to lose his head and balance. The diffident youngster of early idealistic years, in course of time, is transformed into an arrogant senior fond of throwing his weight around; he becomes a conceited prig.”
The article goes on to list the many things that ail the bureaucracy, from within and without. (Admittedly, there have been other articles about it in Indian publications, but being a true Indian, I chose to quote the phirangs on this.)
One thing that I have found surprising about calls for reform in the bureaucracy is that hardly anyone talks about overhauling the selection process, specifically, the UPSC examinations and the whole process that follows after that. It's a long, sapping and inefficient system for identifying future civil servants.
No-one realistically claims that being able to mug up facts on Geology or Chemistry is a good indicator of a candidate's potential as an administrator. The only justification is to think of it as a combination of Spence's job market signalling model, (go read it up on Wikipedia, I'm too lazy to describe it here) and a socialistic urge to provide a supposedly level playing field to, in some way, compare people from different backgrounds and disciplines. The latter urge, however, is also its failing. Since marks in any of the optional subject papers are considered equivalent, rational candidates would opt for papers which are easier to clear. Subjects where the answers are fairly unambiguous and easy to mug up would be favoured over subjects where there is room for interpretation and subjectivity. As anecdotal evidence, I can point to a senior of mine from college who attempted the exams twice with History as his optional paper, then decided that Public Administration was easier because there were fewer textbooks (I believe there are IAS tutorials in Delhi that specialize in teaching you Pub Ad, which charge fees in the lakhs, and people have to queue up at 6 in the morning on enrolment day). In the past, those with 'potential' may have been willing to make that sacrifice; now most would be able to find more worthwhile options. Spence's signalling equilibrium no longer applies, because the better candidates can choose to exit the 'system'. Instead, we end up mostly with a bunch of people who cynically chose to spend at least a year of their lives mugging up stuff about a subject they didn't care about, only to pass an examination. Why should we be surprised if that cynicism carries over to when they make it to the services, and look for ways to get the maximum return on that initial investment?
Then there are those who fail to get past the exams. The UPSC website claims that over 150,000 people wrote the Preliminary Civil Service examination in 2002, of which finally 286 were finally recommended (for recruitment, I presume; the site is ambiguous on that). One wonders what happens to the rest. Even assuming that many will make multiple attempts and will try to get into at least the state services, it is fair to say that a majority will not get a government job at the end of the exercise. Which leaves them with having given up a lot of their (and their families') time and money (all those classes and subscriptions to the Hindu and Frontline) to end up with limited job skills and an abiding cynicism.
Having said all that, the obvious question is -what is the alternative? I would suggest the government seriously consider recruiting some officers directly from the better post-graduate institutes (TISS, JNU, DSE, IGIDR, ISI etc) and perhaps the second-rung B-schools, bypassing the Civil Service Examination system entirely (perhaps administering a basic reasoning skills test and going on to interviews). With salaries set to go up for central government employees, they should be somewhat comparable to the compensation packages offered on campus, and the sense of power, experience and perks that the government can provide are pretty much unmatchable by industry. Considering that the students at these institutes would, for the most part, have actually made it to the PG course as a result of their own innate abilities rather than merely beating the system, Spence's signalling equilibrium once again becomes relevant. Further, they are more likely to have been encouraged to use their analytical skills and have a wider level of exposure to different perspectives. Such a system would reduce the opportunity cost involved in getting into (and also improve opportunities to get out of) the civil services, thus making it more attractive to people who are not entirely sure if it is the job they would like to do for the rest of their lives.
One could argue that it is in some way less fair than having one equalizing examination, but the aim of the recruitment process is finally to get the people most likely to provide cometent administration, not to dole out jobs to people best able to game the system.
What do you think? Does anyone who reads this blog think about it at all? The last few posts have generated a lot of comments (by my standards), so I'd like to see how this one does. I'm pretty sick of writing in rhyme, for the moment.