8th May 2011
The IAS – “I’m Arrogant Service”
Hubris, arrogance: these are the fundamental flaws of human nature, and they display themselves prominently among many, if not all, members of the IAS. Hubris also comes with its counterpart: fear of being exposed. The combination is intellectually lethal.
Undoubtedly possessing high quality brainpower, the IAS officer is predominantly destined to mediocrity – and worse. Forced, on the one hand, to manoeuvre between political masters who come with socialist or communal ideas, and who are invariably corrupt; and, on the other hand, prevented by conduct rules from engaging in public discourse on the nature of policy and the bureaucracy, the IAS officer is compelled to live inside a shell, cocooned from reality, refusing to correct his or her bad ideas. A classic case of under-performance.
I don't know when the transition occurs from high-quality student to arrogant fool, but most IAS officers manage to become arrogant fools by their late 20s. The great curiosity and mental capacity that brought them into the civil service in the first place is effectively a thing of the past. Most IAS officers soon adopt, unquestioningly, the ideas of socialism that are part of their training and interaction with colleagues and politicians. Foolish ideas are their only currency. Naive in the extreme, hoping that government projects and initiatives can lead the economy, they become worthless to the country.
Many IAS officers are sent to study abroad, but academic studies in world-class institutes are no substitute for actual experience of the functioning of public policy in advanced countries. It is not surprising that even those IAS officers who have obtained doctorates from the best American universities turn out to be duds as far as policy formulation is concerned.
Two things matter the most: (a) incentives and (b) the right experience. The lack of appropriate incentives within the IAS is fatal. Promotions have NO RELATIONSHIP with competence. Therefore the desire for lifelong learning is very weak. Indeed, anyone who tries to suggest reforms is sidelined. That brings self-development to a grinding halt. On the other side, IAS officers' work experience is limited either to Indian governments or to international institutions – which are extremely superficial and have no relationship with how governments actually function in advanced nations.
It is impossible to destroy the bad incentives in the IAS without abolishing it. This, I have explained in BFN (and in this article in Times of India). Merit must never be a one-off activity, but a lifelong endeavour. India's governance rewards seniority. That must change. The idea of "seniority" is the death knell of progress. A more useless idea can't be imagined.
The combination of these incentives means that members of the IAS refuse to open their eyes towards the actual practice of public administration in advanced countries. Without such actual experience and understanding, mere academic training is pointless. The civil servants of India must be exposed directly to working within advanced governments. I have proposed this repeatedly in my writings – that the West should abandon foreign aid and, instead, help to directly train (through on-the-job placement, not academic training alone) some of the more talented developing country bureaucrats.
As I have indicated in BFN, I have learnt far more about the way the developed world runs by working inside the bureaucracy in Australia, than from my six years of high quality education in Australia and USA. Academic education has its limits. Three months of on-the-job experience is worth ten years of academic training.
Why I call the IAS the "I'm Arrogant Service" is that despite innumerable contacts with my erstwhile colleagues over the past many years, and writing a number of articles and a book on the subject, there has simply been no interest among these officers to ask questions about how Australia works.
Many IAS officers have come to Australia over the past 10 years and many of them have met me, but NOT ONE OF THEM has shown any interest in learning about the key differences between working in these governments. I have offered, on innumerable occasions, to discuss these matters, but no one is interested, so secure is their sinecure. Why would you care about anything new if your job (and pension) was assured regardless of your contribution? [I'm not saying that the Australian system is perfect – far from that: I'm saying that there are vital lessons India needs to learn, before it can go beyond these developed nations.]
Note that I'm not talking about junior people here. I am talking here about Joint Secretaries in the government of India – people who effectively govern India. I also remember making a suggestion to the head of the National Academy in Mussoorie about being a speaker should they so desire. After all, in 1994 when I was appointed as the Professor of Management at LBSNAA, I only knew so much: pretty limited compared with what I know today. Today, however, I think I have something particularly useful to offer – but there are no takers. Their mind is shut.
Most IAS officers are super-arrogant with a tunnel vision, unable to recognize value and seek out useful new information. They would rather listen (with one ear) to 'international experts' who often have no idea about how good governments actually function, than one of their own – someone who can provide useful insights on the basis both of academic knowledge and of extensive and unique experience of working within the Indian and an advanced country government.
It is clear that Indians are their own enemies. And among the greatest of these enemies are members of the IAS – totally disinterested in learning anything new.
The more I see of IAS officers the more I'm convinced the service must be shut down.