Civil service reform has been a much-discussed subject since India's Independence. As S.K. Das, author of this book mentions, there have been at least 600 Commissions, Committees and Task Forces that have gone into the question. He has tried to give his own perspective, drawing upon examples from other countries.
The introductory chapter sets out the objectives succinctly. Civil service reform has to be part of a broader set of reforms in governance and its focus should be better delivery of services to the citizen rather than its own internal processes. The civil service also needs to respond to the demands of globalisation.
The book, organised in five parts, starts off with an analysis of the civil service as it operates today and goes on to discuss the institutional and organisational frameworks needed. Then, the legal and ethical frameworks comprising the known and oft-repeated axioms are dealt with.
The chapters on institutional and organisational frameworks are mainly descriptive. In a book of this kind, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive elements and some overlap is inevitable. The one on delivery of services provides a useful comparison between special purpose vehicles and public sector enterprises. Highlighting the significant extent of autonomy the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has in its internal functioning, the author says the ‘authorisation' environment the DMRC enjoys at the political level has been stronger than in the case of other public service organisations. In his view, the Group of Ministers exercising the powers of sanctioning projects for the DMRC is a unique system, and it is the closest approximation to the executive agency model.
The Central Board of Direct Taxes, as compared to the Department of Inland Revenues in the United Kingdom, and its performance after its conversion as an executive agency is another example. Das concludes that the CBDT has not been given enough independence to do its assigned job as the apex body of tax administration. By the same token, its chairman has very little accountability. There is also an interesting comparison between some of the public sector units, and they include the ones with the “Navaratna” tag.
In contrast to the financial success of the undertakings administered by the Union Government, those run by the State governments — about 750 in all — are subjected to constant interference in their day-to-day operations. While the aggregate profits of the Central PSUs have gone up 19 per cent annually since 1991, the aggregate losses of the State undertakings are about 17 per cent per annum.
The chapter dealing with recruitment to the civil services has some useful statistical information. It reveals that nearly half of those selected have mediocre academic records, with a second — sometimes even a third — division university degree. This negates the commonly held view that the civil services attract the best talent. Also, citing the UPSC figures, the author shows that a similar proportion of candidates selected in the four years from 2003 to 2006 cleared the examination only in their third or fourth attempt. As a remedy, he proposes a system by which potential candidates will be identified at the post-secondary school stage itself. Some may regard this as yet another attempt to build a “twice born” elite service.
The statistics relating to the tenure of officers are somewhat sobering. Over the period 1978-2006, 55 per cent of the IAS officers spent less than a year in their postings. Those who spent more than three years constituted only 11 per cent. Contrary to the general impression that this happened only in Uttar Pradesh, the 1996 figures show the tally was as high as 78 per cent in Orissa and 74 per cent in Punjab and Karnataka, as against 70 per cent in U.P.
Much of what is said in the chapter on the ethical and legal frameworks is a repeat or endorsement of the views of the Veerappa Moily Commission. Das has also discussed the various aspects of the two-year-old draft Civil Services Bill and wants the subject to be debated widely. His faith in the draft legislation however seems to be misplaced, given that it has not even been introduced in Parliament.
Elsewhere in the book, Das draws attention to other critical aspects of the civil service — for instance, the need for relating rewards to performance and creating a senior executive service. The references to the situation obtaining in other countries are useful. One however wished he had been selective in presenting the material and avoided repetition.
Although the title “Building a world class civil service for 21st Century India” would suggest a much wider canvas, the book for the most part concerns itself with the Indian Administrative Service, which is only one part of the system. Governance systems in Public Sector Undertakings and Special Purpose Vehicles, for instance, have not been examined as closely as the IAS. Surely, elaboration of these aspects would have enhanced the value of the book significantly, given the author's service background and wide range of experience.