Thoughts on economics and liberty

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. 

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5 thoughts on “The IAS – “I’m Arrogant Service”
  1. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    A conversation on my Facebook page with an IAS officer:

    PN Sanjeev,you need to answer three questions..why are you in touch with your so called arrogant colegues through facebook in spite of the fact that you have quit IAS? were in IAS for 15 to 20 years why did it take you so long to understand IAS is arrogant and if that is one of the reasons for your quitting you should have quit much ealier iif it hurted your conscience.Being a part of the so called arrogant sevcive once why should not any one consider you arrogant in your views.

    Sanjeev Sabhlok P, I did not quit because the IAS is arrogant. Please trust me there are many more powerful reasons for that – do read BFN, my book, to understand better. And no, I do not decry the quality of personnel in the IAS, merely the incentives they operate under. The same people will perform brilliantly with the right incentives – that that must necessarily include abolition of the IAS (and all tenured senior executive services).

    Finally, why have you not understood the point I am making? And ask me to the question which NO ONE IN THE IAS has yet asked – and which I’ve clearly outlined in the blog post. I’d rather not engage in conflict. I’m here to HELP India reform. That means we should focus on reform questions. I expect a higher standard of debate from you.

    PN Sanjeev, to have a higher standard of debate iI expect a higher standard of article from you.You have stated in the article under reference the more you see IAS officers the more you are convinced that the service be shut.It would certainly be unrealistic to expect that such statements would not lead to conflict.If you wish to help India to reform please do so without making such sweeping statements.

    Sanjeev Sabhlok Prasahant I have a proclivity for speaking the truth. The results of a bad incentive system leads to arrogant officers who have NO genuine interest in policy. If, despite these incentives, IAS officers had been genuinely competent, I'd have not recommended shutting it down. Unfortunately, the outcomes of bad incentives are obvious in every way – an extremely incompetent civil service. As I say in BFN, a Ferrari has been converted into a poor run down old Fiat. That's the quality of most IAS officers today. The evidence has pointed me 100% in that direction, as well. Lame excuses are their favourite pastime: India is too big, India is different, ad nauseum. 

    Basically I'm saying that these people when given the right incentives will perform miracles. Today they are mediocre beyond imagination, and often worse than mediocre.

    Sorry, I forgot to address your first question: Why am I in touch with IAS officers? Well, three reasons (a) many of them are personal friends despite being incompetent. Just because your friend is incompetent doesn’t mean he/she must no longer be your friend, (b) As a friend and well-wisher of India (and these friends) I would like to bring them some information that could make them think and potentially reform, and (c) I hope that many of these officers, upon reflection, would join politics – the right kind of politics, honest politics, policy-based politics, and therefore become members of the Freedom Team when they are ready.

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Further continuation of this discussion:

    PN: If you have proclivity for stating the truth please spell out the list of incompetent and or arrogant officers in the IAS including your friends which led to your sweeping statement of IAS is incompetent and IAS officers are arrogant

    Sanjeev Sabhlok Dear P, I’ve said what I had to. I do not go into individual personalities since I’m not into individual witch-hunts. I could name many but that is neither here nor there. The system is what I’m talking about, the incentives, the overall outcome. I’d encourage you to consider reading my book in which I’ve spent a lot of time explaining the systemic improvements needed.

    PN: Dear sanjeev, now I will say what I have to on the breed of IAS officers who had quit.I pity them.While in service they could do precious little.A bunch of frustrated despondents.After quitting champions of reforms in the IAS.Hypocrisy of highest order! I do not know how they are without IAS.But IAS is certainly better without them.

    Sanjeev Sabhlok P, I did hope you could rise to the key issues I’m raising and discuss objectively. I was hoping you are genuinely interested in reform and in India. When you are ready for helping India improve and grow into a great country we can discuss. Till then I’m afraid the country is not gaining anything from this so why not take a break on this topic? If you find ANYTHING wrong in my book we can discuss further.

  3. Nitin Gulhane

    I could live with arrogant IAS officers but my opinion and experience with them is worse. To me they come across as a clueless fools.
    Now, constitution of India offers them a nice office, a chauffered car but usually I haven't seen a particular grasp of the state of affairs by any IAS officer.
    Indian masses do beleive that IAS officers (the Collector) somehow possesses a superior intelligence but I dn't beleive that an average IAS officer does possess a seriously superior IQ (not that I give any credence to IQ). Most of them study hard and get thru the written exams and get the job.
    Another thing that bothers me is rampant corruption among IXS officers. Even politicians are not as greedy as a typical IxS officer. Add to that their general cluelessness and I would agree with your opinion that the service muct be shutdown. I would suggest that all IxS officers should be shipped to remote island with lot of paper and pen…we can at least gain something from their ability to read and write well.
    I know your experience with IxS cadre is different than mine…but remember, the side of civil services that I see wouldn't be visible to you…just like I cannot see the service the way you have seen it.

  4. laaki dev

    Once a person gets through IAS exams, he/she is set for life. There is little incentive to maintain learning and upgrading skills. There is no constant evaluation to see if the person is still fit to hold a higher office.

    What more can be foolish than promotion through ‘seniority’ in an administrative system of a country as vast and diverse as India with its multitude of challenges.

    No wonder the system has degraded to this level:

    And it tends to produce ‘gems’ like this:

    Most bureaucrats are pathetic in their understanding of social and business environments and totally shut to new ideas and views.

    Talk about horse vision!

    And yes, it is high time Goverment made some provision for experienced and respected private sector administrators entry to the top public sector posts.

    Indians need better administrators than these ‘arrogant’ babus.

  5. Dr A Sankaranarayanan

    they are Indian apologetic service. I know inscidents where a training school BARC failed candidate becoming IAS and then apologised every time to personally knowing science knowing individuals9 friends of stature) but cannot but carry out the delhi driven duties as a higher ranking secretary surpassing in seniority the same training school graduated director beaurocrats..jai ho..

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