Loopholes have failed the new 360° assessment to empanel IAS officers. It needs reforms
The latest human resource practices across the globe, in governmental organisations as well in the corporate world, are increasingly relying upon the process of 360° assessment of the candidates for fresh recruitment and promotion. Transplanting the same to empanel officers for senior posts in the central government, without modifying it to suit the local context, has led to stunning results in many cases — brilliant and result-oriented officers being surprisingly eliminated in the 360° appraisal and award-winning District Collectors being rendered ineligible to be empanelled as Joint Secretary since they had not logged in three years on central deputation.
Existing process and its problems
The Narendra Modi government, while trying to streamline and rationalise this process in its bid to sift out the best talent, found that the existing process laid undue emphasis on the ACR/ PAR (Annual Confidential Report/Performance Appraisal Report). The scenario was further complicated by the widespread practice of rating virtually everyone as “outstanding” in most states. For the uninitiated, senior positions in various ministries of government — Secretary, Additional Secretary, and Joint Secretary — are filled up from among various all-India and central services, through a well-established process called empanelment.
There are no statutory provisions provided for the empanelment process and executive instructions/guidelines have been issued from time to time to regulate the process. The role of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) does not come into play at any stage, since this is not regarded as a promotion in the accepted sense.
Guidelines are often changed, at times prescribing criteria that are impossible by a particular officer to fulfill at this stage in their career.
Sometime around 2012, it was laid down that before an officer could be eligible to be considered for empanelment as the Additional Secretary, s/he ought to have not only been empanelled as a Joint Secretary, but also to have served as Director and/or Joint Secretary at the Centre, for a minimum of three years.
Many senior officers, who had been empanelled as Joint Secretary but had not served in government, were thus deprived of their chance to be empanelled as Additional Secretary and consequently of further progression as Secretary in a ministry in New Delhi. Similarly, the guidelines were relaxed, especially in terms of years of service, in favour of the central services, thereby opening up prospects for them to be empanelled as Additional Secretary as well as Secretary, posts which were otherwise, by default, earmarked for officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
Traditionally, apart from conditions like vigilance clearance and non-pendency of any departmental proceedings, complaints, or inquiries, the ACR/PAR dossier of the officers is examined by a group of serving or retired Secretaries. The gradation given by their respective reporting/reviewing/accepting authority is comprehensively scrutinised and reassessed and thereafter numerical grading is done. Those above the cut-off are empanelled, whereas those who do not make the grade are left out. Each officer is entitled to two subsequent annual reviews, from which they can be empanelled.
The new dimension of 360° assessment
The newly-added process of 360° assessment of the officers has now become an integral part of the empanelment process. No guidelines in this regard are made available in the public domain. Senior retired secretaries of the government get in touch with senior colleagues and even junior officers, with whom the officers under consideration have worked. Based on their telephonic conversation, they come up with an assessment that effectively overrides, or at least vetoes, the gradation received through the ACR/PARs.
The officer, whether empanelled or not, is not given a summary or an outcome of the 360° assessment. If the objective of this assessment is also to afford constructive and critical feedback to the officer concerned, at least it ought to be shared with them. This is quite out-of-sync in the environment where the PARs are now fully disclosed to the officer after the process is complete in all cases and not just in case of “adverse remarks”.
In my opinion, the following reforms are required.
The empanelment process should be codified into statutory rules framed under the All India Services Act, 1951, which would necessitate a formal consultation with the state governments.
The non-transparent and opaque process of 360° assessment needs to be either discarded or should be followed by a personal interview with the panel headed by the Cabinet Secretary. Members of the UPSC can also be co-opted in the process. Documents-only appraisal or mere informal and unstructured telephonic conversation needs to be supplemented by a face-to-face interview. This interview can also afford the officer concerned an opportunity to dispel any of the negative points that may have cropped up in the 360° assessment.
Since the 360° assessment is confined to eliciting the feedback of officers, there is no reason to not contact senior politicians, including chief ministers and ministers under whom the officer has served. This might, in many ways, reveal unexplored traits of the officer, since the current feedback is merely bureaucratic in nature. It may be mentioned here that the CMs and the ministers are generally involved in writing the ACR/ PARs of senior IAS officers.
Encourage experienced IAS officers
The latest guidelines also provide that before an officer can be empanelled as a Joint Secretary, they need to have put in at least three years of service in the central government. Since the lower cut-off in terms of length of service is 16 years for IAS officers, this would mean that they should complete a stint at the Centre before they have logged 16 years of service. This is precisely the stage in their career where IAS officers are posted as District Collectors and heads of department, which are arguably their most meaningful tenures.
Thus, many officers who might be interested in coming to the government at the level of Joint Secretary are effectively deprived of the opportunity or are required to serve as Directors in the centre, while their juniors may be working as Joint Secretaries. Even otherwise, the government needs to encourage officers who have the adequate field experience to bring their perspectives to the table while being empanelled as Joint Secretaries in their respective ministries.
All Group “A” Central Services are, in theory as well as in practice, specialist services, such as income tax, customs, and central excise/GST, audit and accounts, railway accounts, defence estates, etc. Thus, their empanelment ought to be generally restricted to ministries, departments, and divisions where they can tap into their core competencies. Moreover, allowing large-scale entry of officers from central services might go against the spirit of Article 312 of the Constitution, which envisages a common civil service for the Union and the states, in the form of all-India services.
In the absence of these reforms, the empanelled officers would essentially emerge from the so-called non-preferred cadres, whose officers usually prefer to serve in the national capital in one capacity or the other. Officers in charge of critical positions in central government ministries must come from the best of the lot and should not be shackled by guidelines that operate to irrationally eliminate them, without any objective basis or criteria.
KBS Sidhu recently superannuated from the IAS, 1984 batch of Punjab cadre. He tweets @kbssidhu1961. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
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Originally published at https://theprint.in on October 26, 2021.