O Thou who seest all things below
Grant that Thy servants may go slow,
That they may study to comply
With regulations till they die.
Teach us, O Lord, to reverence
Committees more than common sense;
To train our minds to make no plan
And pass the baby when we can.
So when the tempter seeks to give
Us feelings of initiative,
Or when alone we go too far,
Chastise us with a circular.
Mid war and tumult, fire and storms,
Give strength O Lord, to deal out forms.
Thus may Thy servants ever be
A flock of perfect sheep for Thee.
(Hymn and Prayer for Civil Servants, published anonymously in the Daily Telegraph)
Like speeches, there are three careers an IAS officer will have: the one she visualises (often with a rosy tint) when she ascends the mountains to Mussoorie, the actual path over the next thirty-five years and the retrospective glance (post-retirement) at the career (and life while in service) she wishes she could have had. Being at the third stage of this cycle, I feel justified in offering a survival kit to the aspiring officer – “survival” because, in the light of recent events like the Harish Gupta, et al, conviction episode, just going through a controversy-free career and enjoying retired life themselves seem like unattainable goals. My homilies are addressed to only that category of officers who seek to do their job honestly and conscientiously, not to those who seek extra monetary returns from public service (kimbalam, as the Tamils call it) or those who are permanently gaming the system to occupy “plum” postings. So here goes:
- Downplay your achievement:
You did get through what, when I qualified for the IAS, was called the “national lottery”. Notwithstanding all the coaching classes advertising the number of hours of study put in by their diligent students, let us be honest enough to admit that several factors, including Lady Luck, play a role in the process. So, with humility, accept the fact that you are now the member of a premier service, which brings with it a few privileges and don’t advertise your superiority (even if it brings you down a few notches in the marriage market). Above all, do not add the three magic initials to your nameplate and your letterhead and, please, do not rub in the fact of your success at the sweepstakes to others, especially from sister services.
- Develop your human qualities:
It is very easy to become arrogant when surrounded by the trappings of power. Remember always the fleeting nature of things and stay focused on the essentials. Be a friend and guide to your colleagues, especially in field postings, and a source of support to every member of the public who you meet day in and day out. You can never satisfy everyone but you can certainly cultivate the habit of lending a willing ear to the grievances of the common man/woman and trying to help to the maximum extent possible. Your satisfaction should come not from the achievement of (often meaningless) targets set by your superiors but from the number of people who come to meet you when you return to your former haunts in later years.
- In any job, insist on thorough process:
“Caveat emptor” should be your motto, especially where you are the emptor (i.e., the buyer). Never buy in to arguments from bosses and subordinates that business was always done this way. We live in times where trust in the civil service has evaporated: what would have been accepted in 1975 as a good faith decision with no ulterior motives will no longer wash. Any decision on allocation of scarce resources (schools, orphanages, coal blocks, etc., etc.) should, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion. The allocation process should be accessible to all members of the public, have clear cut-off dates and have clear guidelines for selection. Where selection through a bidding process is not feasible, e.g., multiple applicants for an ashramshala or an old age home, selection from the bidders meeting pre-specified criteria could even be based on draw of lots at a public location. Of course, it would be best to aim at reducing discretion to the maximum extent by eliminating the need for licensing as far as possible and ensuring that ministerial approval is not required. If your Minister, or the Chief Minister or Prime Minister (for that matter) promise you full support for following time-worn processes, politely ask for a transfer to another post. Prime Ministers have ad nauseam promised, in every Civil Service Day speech in recent years, to protect honest decision making. We have seen the consequences today, when honest bureaucrats have gone to jail.
- Keep track of the paper trail:
Even Albert Einstein would not remember the details of every decision he took in past years, and you are certainly no Einstein. Be rigorous in your paper work. The coal block allocation imbroglio arose, in part, because there were apparently no papers bringing out the rationale of allocation decisions in certain cases. I offer my grateful thanks to the hard-nosed Secretary of my Ministry who drilled into me the need to keep my paperwork up to date. After every negotiation, my first task was to prepare a gist of the viewpoints of all participating parties and the decisions taken or actions required and circulate these to all concerned. Keeping all the cards on the table helped in later years at the time of audit (though it did not spare me from bothersome investigations). But, a quarter of a century later, I am leading a quiet, retired life without any blemish on my career. As a matter of abundant caution, keep copies of important notings and papers in your personal custody. You never know when someone interposes in a file (on a subsequent date) some comment contrary to your view or when the next fire or flood hits the record room.
- Travel light:
A popular baggage manufacturer used to advertise its products as “travel light”. Bureaucrats would do well to adopt this dictum. You will need to attune your spouse to your philosophy since, if you insist on process, you are unlikely to survive in “lucrative” posts. If the move is only from the fourth to the first floor of the State Secretariat, or within the same city, this is not a matter of great concern. But there will be this vindictive politician or bureaucrat who delights in moving you from, say, Nashik to Nagpur or from Lucknow to Gonda. Ensure you can move at short notice and set up your establishment in a jiffy at the new place. It helps particularly if you and your spouse/family possess a sense of adventure and can improvise even where creature comforts are lacking.
- Get a life beyond work:
If I kick myself for any stupidity, it is for not following this maxim. Staying in office beyond 6 PM is more damaging to one’s personal life than any other vice. If your political or bureaucratic boss is determined to sit in office till 10 PM, you do not need to keep them company, especially in this electronically advanced age. Just sweetly tell them you are going home and they can call you on mobile or email you any document with a critical time-frame. I have had murderous thoughts about Ministers whose rank inefficiency in clearing files forced me to stay in office till midnight, photocopying notes for the next day’s cabinet meeting. Resist weekend office attendance like the plague: if you are forced to go, make it clear to your boss that you are doing her a big favour and expect compensatory time off in the future.
- Make personal excellence, not the rat race, your goal:
In the middle phase of my career, I watched with envy (and not a little heart-burning) as colleagues and friends moved to the green pastures of international institutions and foreign universities. One of my seniors added fuel to the fire by mentioning that proximity to the top was the key to such lateral movements. It took me more years down the line to realise that I gained immense experience and knowledge from working in different challenging assignments at home. Set yourself goals in any job, no matter how lowly or insignificant it is considered in the bureaucratic pecking order. If you are Director of Archives, develop one of the finest repositories of historical information in the country. If you land the post of Officer on Special Duty (Revenue Appeals), set a time frame within which appeals will be disposed of and justice given to litigants. Very often, while participating in the rat race, we forget that the cheese is right there in the room where we are working.
- Watch the company you keep:
As you move up the ladder, you will be gratified by the “Rockstar” reputation you seem to have. Leading businessmen, builders and even film stars flock to your office and invite you to lavish parties. Remember, none of these come without strings attached. Your subordinates draw conclusions from your apparent proximity to the high and mighty as does the public. “Owners’ pride” being “neighbours’ envy”, it won’t be long before the first complaint about a decision taken by you (which may be perfectly bona fide) favouring a particular person/group makes its way to the tables of the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. In a district, do not be seen at card tables in the evening or develop a fondness for the bottle that cheers. News travels fast and you find that the value of your currency with the public has diminished rather rapidly.
- Develop competencies/interests for the future:
I am lucky I got bitten by the technology bug early in my professional life. A laptop computer was my partner over the last two decades of my career. Equipping myself with the basic skills necessary for individual entrepreneurship, I could move seamlessly from the protected confines of service to survival on my own. Your education does not need to end on the day you join service. It is noteworthy that many officers acquire additional qualifications while in service. A law degree or a diploma in finance enables you to branch out into areas you never dreamt of while in service. Apart from mundane professional attainments, you can aspire to develop your interests in music, horticulture, vintage car repair and redesign, spirituality, astrology or any one of a million pursuits that add richness to your post-IAS life.
- C’est la vie:
Finally, develop a devil-may-care attitude to your life in the bureaucracy. You will have your share of troublesome bosses and recalcitrant subordinates. Learn to take all issues stoically: nothing is life-threatening (generally) and, in hindsight, quite often somewhat ridiculous. You are passed over for a coveted posting or even (horrors of horrors) are superseded for promotion. The day after, the sun still rises in the east, birds are chirping in the trees and you are still in good health. Consider that, after taking all possible precautions and keeping your nose clean, you are still arraigned for a felony you did not commit, consequent on the efforts of over-enthusiastic (though inaccurate) auditors and investigation agencies, responding to the public demand for blood. Face it calmly, put your case forward to the best of your ability and prepare to avail of state hospitality in case the chips do not fall on your side. Fortify yourself with the thought “This too shall pass”. If you have faithfully adhered to these ten commandments, you will still enjoy life even in Tihar or Yeravada Jail.
The author, Venkatesan Ramani, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). His work focuses on public policy reform and improving public service delivery systems.
This post was first published on his personal site, The Gadfly Column.
Tweet at Venkatesan: @vramani10