“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” said Laurence J Peter, his tongue nowhere near his cheek. He quite meant it. It is as much applicable in the USA as in India, though there is a fundamental difference. Unlike the USA, in India the rise is mostly by default and, in a manner of speaking, emblematic of the unprofessional environment that is cranked up all around the government machinery.
The Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) for once tried to set it right, though it was thanks to a hand-me-down from the Supreme Court. In an order that memorably broke with the bureaucratic past, the DOPT, vide its OM No. 21011/1/2005-Estt (A) (Pt-II) dated 14th May, 2009 inter alia directed that Annual Performance Appraisal Reports (APAR) be communicated to the officer reported upon for representation, if any, for the sake of fairness and transparency in public administration. This was done in the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgment of 12.5.2008 (Dev Dutt vs Union of India) which opined that the object of writing the confidential report is to give an opportunity to the public servant to improve performance. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission too had recommended that the performance appraisal system for all services be made more consultative and transparent.
The salient points of the order are: (i) The nomenclature of the Annual Confidential Report be modified as Annual Performance Assessment Report (APAR); (ii) The full APAR including the overall grade be communicated to the officer reported upon; (iii) The concerned officer be given the opportunity to make any representation against the entries on the specific factual observations and the final grading given in the Report beginning 2008-09; (iv) The competent authority may consider the matter objectively to accept, modify or reject the representation.
The DOPT’s order was doubtless a move in the right direction to ensure transparency and to reduce, if not eliminate, subjectivism in report-writing. The numerical grading, with numbers assigned to the important aspects a civil servant is supposed to focus on, is well-merited. But the idea is predicated on one basic postulate: professionalism. Is the Indian civil service today professional enough for these laudable impulses to succeed?
The honest answer, sadly, is a resounding no. Put another way, this effort to transplant objectivity through transparency on a system that is unprofessional and nurses an antediluvian outlook is bound to throw up its own internal dynamics and, most likely, come a cropper. Today, sadly, nepotism, favouritism, and networking, overpower professionalism and merit – evident from the quality of personnel who grace important posts.
Take APAR-writing. With everything a civil servant achieves or fails to achieve hooked to APARs, one wonders how many seniors would have the intellectual honesty to assess their subordinates objectively and have the courage of conviction to call a spade a spade. More often than not, the impulse will be to be goody-goody and play to the gallery and not invite trouble from subordinates; consequently reports written will mostly be an exaggeration of what officials deserve.
The problem gets worse compounded because most civil servants suffer from a grand delusion of personal competence and excellence; everyone thinks of himself as nothing short of outstanding – notwithstanding his level of application and smarts. So, with APAR made transparent now, any grading less than outstanding is not going to satisfy public officials.
Worse will be those who are absolute no-gooders in mental acumen or in application to jobs. Remember today there does exist the FR 56J provision whereby officials can be weeded out for non-performance after completing 30 years of service or after attaining the age of 50. Sadly, this provision remains only on paper; everyone sails through unharmed – Indian sentimentality trumping non-professionalism!
This lot largely remained in the penumbral zone where opaqueness spawned a no-man’s land, prompting reporting officers to be bold and honest. They continued – but only just. Now this so-called honesty will be sacrificed on the new-falutin bedrock of transparency. How many officers will make bold to grade subordinates who fall below the benchmark? Maybe, just a few.
And these few will be the odd-men, dubbed gadflies – scorned, best avoided and condemned. No one relishes such categorizations. So whither APAR – when the very purpose of transparency is apt to be defeated because people want not subordinates with long faces, subordinates who plot every moment to embarrass them, slyly baying for their blood – because they have earned grades they quite rightly deserved, but can’t yet relish?
A professional would take it, would endeavour to improve upon his performance, but not the sluggard, the schemer – because non-professionalism admits of no such self-introspection, self-cogitation, self-communing – who would like to go on inexorably to shirk work and responsibility, hoping the Indian umbrella of nephewism would take him up and up the totem-pole in the escalator-paradigm the system follows, where experience is measured not with reference to the quality of service but the length of service rendered and where seniority, not merit, is the emperor. Few realize the professional definition of experience: Experience = Capacity to Learn (CL) x Desire to Learn (DL) x number of years of service; put a zero at CL or at DL and you know what I mean! APAR, one would surmise, in such an environment will, unfortunately, not breed transparency but, paradoxically, hypocrisy.
One solution is to go the whole hog: let APARs be placed in the public domain for everyone to see one another’s; the magic of openness acting the ombudsman and shaming or blessing all actors – officers reported upon and reporting/reviewing authorities – thereby nipping any recrudescence of baseless favouritism and misgivings amongst them that otherwise shall lie tucked between reporting/reviewing officers and the officer reported upon. Not to forget that such openness will bring in real transparency since the other major stakeholder (the public and the customer) will get to see the fairness of the assessment done on the public servant. Touché!