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Friday, December 7, 2007

Is Chief Secretary a fifth wheel?

Is Chief Secretary a fifth wheel?

 The IAS is our premier civil service conceived in hope and brought forth in liberty. It is a sad reflection on today's Chief Ministers that, even after 50 years of its existence, many of them still expect IAS to stand for nothing more than "I Agree, Sir."

WHEN A Chief Minister invited a senior IAS officer of his State cadre serving with the Central Government to come back to the State as Chief Secretary, the officer, highly capable but extremely shrewd, is reported to have asked tongue-in-cheek, "Sir, with your style of functioning, do you really need a Chief Secretary?" Jokes apart, the officer's comment would seem to apply to more than one State and more than one Chief Minister and raises the serious question, "Do we really need a Chief Secretary in today's politico-administrative ambience in the States? Or has the post become, or been deliberately made, irrelevant?"

The question has arisen because to many of today's Chief Ministers it does not seem to matter a bit who the Chief Secretary is or how long he or she stays in the job. The paradox, however, in the Chief Secretaries' Frequent Transfer Syndrome is: if it is not important who the Chief Secretary is or how long he/she stays in the job, then why bother to change him/her at all? Is it a healthy fascination for inducting fresh blood or a morbid fascination for drawing fresh blood? There are many fallouts of such frequent changes of Chief Secretaries, all of them downside. For example, it gives many more IAS officers a chance to occupy the much-dreamt-of post of Chief Secretary and thereby improves the look of their post-retirement bio-data. It also gives the Chief Ministers a sense of raw power and a not-to-be-missed opportunity to show officers who the boss is around here. It also sends out a cue to the new incumbents as to what they should do to stay in the job (though, to the credit of the IAS, many of them have refused to take the cue). It is true that the public are not directly or immediately affected by changes at this level, but they would surely be affected ultimately by the trickle-down demoralising effect on all levels of administration.

Niceties of behaviour

Merits and demerits apart, what is saddening about such cases is the total abandonment by most Chief Ministers of even minimum common courtesy and niceties of behaviour on such occasions. Time was — it sounds like Victorian fiction today! — when a retiring Chief Secretary would be informed over a cup of tea by the Chief Minister who the successor would be. The former would then inform the successor and both would call on the Chief Minister together.

What is today's situation? The incumbent Chief Secretary probably first comes to know of his shift through the grapevine and does not know whether to believe it or not, or whom to ask for confirmation or contradiction. (His instinct tells him that his Daffedar knows but his status prevents him from asking!) Then usually there is a call from the Chief Minister's office, not from the Chief Minister or any senior Secretary level officer but from a relatively junior functionary, confirming the shift. In one case when the shifted officer wanted to go on leave on health grounds instead of immediately joining the insignificant paper-job he was posted to, even this face-saving request was refused and he was asked to join at once though he had only about four months to retire. In another case, the shifted Chief Secretary's request to the Chief Minister to sponsor his name for Central deputation was refused nor was he given any other posting in the State for quite some time.

It is nobody's case that a Chief Minister should blindly follow seniority in appointing the Chief Secretary or that, once appointed, a Chief Secretary should be a fixture till he retires. After all, Chief Ministers are human (even if, in some cases, their partymen treat them as divine) and the choice of a Chief Secretary may, in retrospect, turn out to be a mistake, and public interest demands that the mistake be rectified. But if any State Government has to have four Chief Secretaries in four months and resorts to massive seniority-skipping then there must be something wrong with one or all of the following:

(a) The temperament/competence of most of the senior IAS officers in the range of selection; (b) the method of selecting the Chief Secretary; (c) legitimacy of administrative/political priorities and goals; (d) the political ambience; (e) the Chief Minister's temperament.

In recent times the public image of Chief Secretaries has suffered somewhat because of the conduct of a few black sheep in the IAS, the cynicism that has enveloped the civil service as a whole leading to the cover-my-back syndrome and the low competence and initiative displayed by some of the incumbents. But conceptually, the job itself includes the following important responsibilities:

* guardian of the morale of the civil services and in particular the All India Services;

* design and continuous improvement of administrative systems;

* human resource development in the civil services;

* preserve integrity, neutrality and responsiveness in the civil services;

* as a holistic representative of the government, ensure an integrated image of the government internally and externally;

* install and activate appropriate long-term planning, implementation and evaluation systems.

These are roles that are too important to be neglected or bungled and the adverse impact on them of too frequent or quixotic transfers is too obvious to be emphasised.


Court judgments

Unfortunately, a couple of judgments of the Supreme Court have paved the way for Chief Ministers brazenly playing ducks and drakes with Chief Secretaries' selection and transfers. In one famous judgment, the Supreme Court, dismissing the petition of an IAS officer against his supersession for promotion as Secretary to the Government of India, remarked that "it is the privilege of the master to choose his cook." In another incident, an officer was shifted from the post of Chief Secretary to a totally insignificant post "equated" under the All India Service rules to that of a Chief Secretary. The officer argued that, by its very nature, no other post in a State administration could be really equivalent to that of a Chief Secretary and that the so-called equation under the rules was hollow and amounted effectively to camouflaging a reduction in rank. The Court unfortunately rejected this argument (which, to anyone familiar with State administration, would appear to be eminently valid) and ruled that as long as the emoluments and the grade were protected, the officer could not complain. These two rulings have enabled Chief Ministers to promote half a dozen officers to the Chief Secretary's grade and pick and choose the Chief Secretary from them as per their whims and fancies without having to supersede an officer openly on merits and defend it before courts as was the case in the early days of the Service when there was only one post in the grade of Chief Secretary.

The most important role of a Chief Secretary is to rise above the "here and now" issues (which are really the responsibility of the various Departmental Secretaries) and act with a long-term perspective on the viability, efficiency and responsiveness of administrative systems. The fact that Chief Secretaries are being changed like overnight clothing ignoring the adverse long-term impact of such action would suggest that they are getting pushed out not for failing to perform this basic role but for disagreeing with or not doing what the Chief Ministers want to be done "here and now, and no questions asked."

It is no part of the duty, moral or legal, of any officer, much less a Chief Secretary, to always and blindly agree with a Minister or Chief Minister. An officer's duty is to advise the Minister/Chief Minister frankly, objectively and knowledgeably and, except in patently unethical or illegal decisions, to do his best in implementing the latter's orders effectively. An officer may, and certainly ought to, be faulted for not being objective or knowledgeable, or for ineffective implementation. In actual practice, however, most cases of officers being treated shabbily arise because of their disagreeing with the proposed action rather than their lack of objectivity or competence.

Some practical steps that could be thought of to discourage transfer tantrums on the part of the political executive, are

* Do away with the equation of posts in the Chief Secretary's grade.

* For the appointment/removal of the Chief Secretary, adopt a mechanism similar to the one suggested by the National Police Commission for the appointment/removal of the DGP.

* The UPSC should acquire powers to do an annual State-wise review of how the All India Services cadres in each State are managed and place it before Parliament for a discussion.

* Whenever cases of apparently ego-driven, unfair treatment of senior public servants by the political executive comes up before the Courts, the likely adverse impact of such treatment on the quality of administration and service to the public may also be given due weight instead of taking a narrowly legalistic, rule-based view.

The IAS is our premier civil service conceived in hope and brought forth in liberty. When we entered it, we were taught that IAS stood for Integrity, Anonymity and Service. It is a sad reflection on today's Chief Ministers that, even after 50 years of its existence, many of them still expect IAS to stand for nothing more than "I Agree, Sir."



Former Special Chief Secretary,
Government of Andhra Pradesh

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