It has been an eventful three years for the NDA Government. While there may be differences on how it scored, there is no denying its actionpacked look and feel. At the critical mid-point juncture, moving towards the idea of “New India” is being seriously contemplated. Civil servants have been advised to reorient and align themselves to this vision of the contemporary leadership.

The Prime Minister was probably referring to the change imperative in his address on the occasion of Civil Services Day last month. He urged introspection on various issues, including why civil servants did not have a positive image in the eyes of the public, despite being good individuals. What he, very interestingly, underscored was anubhav ka bojh or the burden of experience, something which has not been articulated by the political executive, perhaps not even sensed, vis-a-vis civil servants. Within the system, it translates, in fairly simple terms, to the comparatively wizened senior levels applying brakes, screechingly or slo-mo, on innovation, experimentation and functioning in an unorthodox, out-of-the box style, to get things going on the ground.

Alternatively, it means coming down heavily, often incognito, on those not sufficiently compliant or daring to not be docile yes-persons. These are among the most familiar and distasteful experiences for any civil servant worth her salt. Coming from the exalted pulpit that it did, the burnished message to junk manacles of hierarchy and privileged mindsets that have, unfortunately, become synonymous with governance, was strikingly significant.

It is not only the lal batti, the infamous symbol of all that was perverse about the arrogance of power, that has become part of a dark patch of our governance history, as of 1 May. There is talk of codifying entitlements to make it difficult to sneak back to having a rollicking time at public expense, though the allpermeating jugaadu attitude may not give in quite so tamely. Be that as it may, many certitudes do look set to quietly fade away.

Of a piece with the catchy reform-and-transform mantra is the recent decision of the Government to rather subtly tweak the selection process for Secretaries to the Government of India. Being apex posts, even the slightest change has reverberations. Cutting loose from the past, two batches of IAS officers, of 1984 and 1985, have been empaneled in one shot. While it means somewhat reduced waiting time to scale the professional summit for some, it disappointingly scrunches the available coveted space for many others. Seventeen officers of the 1984 batch and 20 from the 1985 batch have been anointed, contrasted to 31 and 28 from the 1983 and 1982 batches respectively. Widening the talent pool is the most likely rationale. The special focus on an in-between, largely incomprehensible, category of Secretary-equivalents, counts as a change, too, though it appears somewhat inexplicable. For the uninitiated, this category was supposedly meant for those with less than two years to go before retirement, however wobbly and garbled the logic, going by the game of musical chairs that is constantly played with postings at this level. This time around, however, few officers with just 18 months in service have been empaneled as Secretaries, while others with between 3 and 6 years in their bag have been cloistered in the unambiguously lesser ~ one may call it Tier 2 ~ category, with the clear prospect of working with juniors as their administrative bosses or languishing in posts which are definitely non-mainstream.

Notwithstanding these evident dampeners, there must be marinating joy for all those empaneled, though the exact destination and the time taken to get there remains as yet unknown and is frankly, unknowable. That IAS officers head almost all Ministries/Departments of the Government of India is no official secret. The steel frame has successfully retained its steely clasp on the top echelons. Efforts to change this arrangement ~ or deal, as some scornfully see it ~ have so far fallen by the wayside. Hence the need to get a better appreciation of what the process of empanelment is all about. With the enveloping buzz of openness and transparency, this may be best perceived as an endeavour towards enhanced public education. Secretaries are after all the ace doers, movers and shakers in our polity.

According to a set of guidelines, dating back to 2008 (almost a decade !), empanelment for IAS officers is to be considered NOT as a reflection of the intrinsic merit, or otherwise, of an officer, but primarily the suitability of the officer to occupy senior levels in the Central Government. What these very special skillsets are, remain undisclosed. Instead, there is an attempted elaboration which utterly lacks coherence and clarity. It merely states that given the background and experience of an officer, she may be highly suited to occupy senior positions in State Governments.

Likewise, another officer, in view of the background and experience, may be considered more suitable for the Central Government. Considering this is meant exclusively for All-India Service officers, whose basic mandate, from day one, is to serve both at the State and the Centre, one is left confounded as to its justification and wider implications. There are hardly any programmes that can take off other than in the spirit of cooperative federalism. Can the same officer then be adjudged suitable for one level and unsuitable for another, both in the same spectrum? There should ideally be no room for the unsuitables. The concept of a Welfare State cannot be stretched to such mind-bending lengths.

The adjudication process that steers officers into the hallowed portals of empanelment is fraught with complexities and problems. It is marvelously opaque and document-reliant. The mighty document is the archaic Annual Appraisal Report, which according to a Supreme Court ruling is no longer confidential and has to be disclosed. Therefore, on paper, invariably everyone is rated “outstanding” , with only 40 per cent weightage to work-related criteria and 60 per cent weightage to personality traits. The statedly contemporary twist of a 360 degree review by peers, seniors and colleagues, is an equally hush-hush affair and does not really pass muster as an objective assessment tool for professional capabilities, given our unique work environment. Further, the mechanism which provides scope for two rounds of reviews to transition from the non-empaneled into the empaneled category leaves ample room for discretion and makes the initial decision open to question . Why some make it through the review -filter and not others, is inevitably a subject of endless and avoidable conjecture.

Not very illuminating after all. What is even more foggy is the final matching of the empaneled officer with the post. It has happened, times without number, that officers are assigned Ministries where they have no sector-specific expertise or experience and have to necessarily spend a huge chunk of valuable time just learning the ropes. The tenures are almost always short because of the slow, unpredictable, cumbersome trek up to the summit.

It was expected that with Niti Aayog’s gentle nudge to bring in best global and corporate practices to the administrative helm and with the impressive political will to carry them through, there would have been some big bang, comprehensive changes in this critical area.

Hopefully it is just a short wait.

The writer is a retired IAS officer and comments on governance issues.