Appraising Performance of Public Officials in Public Sphere

Governance opacity has gotten shriller by the day – quite an about-turn were one to recall the PM’s credo: Maximum Governance, Minimum Government; and Transparent Governance sans Corruption. To be fair, there indeed was some out-of-box thinking like lateral recruitment to engage more specialists. But the move on lateral recruitment – viewed as lateral intrusion by learned status quoists and apologists of Raj’s colonial instincts – hasn’t quite taken off. If there have indeed been some, it’s been only in isolated measures, manifested in crony and nepotistic placements of a few handpicked devout followers whose outlook and actions are more reminiscent of ardent religious order than of public officials who transcend party and political affiliations. But that’s a different issue and not the subject of discussion here. Yet, it’s interesting to glean from the interstices of subject orders and practices how the issue has been – can be – swung around to beguile the naïve and the credulous.

The intent here though is to see what surely is plausible to improve upon within the present government construct. Take one of the important determinants critical to improving the governance system that hasn’t quite received the government’s attention it deserves: annual performance appraisal reports (APAR). Anyone familiar with the government apparatus would know that the APAR is crucial to a government employee’s career advancement, placement, deputation and professional recognition. It is this crucial mechanism that sadly lies unattended, notwithstanding the once-a-while cosmetic changes done – aimed largely at impressing the world that it indeed has kept pace with the rapid changes in the external environment.

Also read: Propriety is Key to Citizen’s Quality of Life

Let it be said pithily that there is a dire need to go completely transparent in APAR, if the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) is honest about its intent, and not on mere optics. The reality, though never said in as many words, is that the glasnost – pursuant to promulgation of the RTI Act 2005 – had twisted the DoPT’s arm to let go of its tangles of secrecy, alleged nepotism and perfervid favouritism. Once the RTI Act permitted access to annual confidential reports (ACR), the DoPT’s high wall of opacity had crumbled, as it valiantly tried to make a virtue of its helplessness to shroud and protect itself from any more flanking moves. As it squirmed and reconnoitred to take fresh guard, the Supreme Court’s 2008 judgment in Dev Dutt vs. Union of India, [Civil Appeal No. 7631 of 2002] came as a godsend.

The object of confidential report, the DoPT order said, was to give an opportunity to the public servant to improve performance. They were helped along by the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission’s recommendation that the performance appraisal system need be made more consultative and transparent. While giving the ACR a makeover to the APAR (makeovers eerily take the focus off the real!), the DoPT grandly announced that officials shall be handed a copy of their APAR (Did they have a choice at that point in time?) and, with the largesse of openness adding to their gravitas, that officials can even represent against assessments made by their superior officers! It seemed manna from North Block!

Even at first coming, the discerning saw this not as an effort at professional appraisal to improve the system but as DoPT’s own furtive way to willy-nilly hold on to their besieged fortress in times of high-octane clamour for transparency in the wake of promulgation of the RTI Act, 2005. Little wonder, the numerical grading in a scale of 1-10 has come a cropper, where most civil servants suffering from a grand delusion of their outstanding attributes and considering themselves nothing short of first-rate (God’s gift to bureaucracy!), equate “networking smarts/social connects/nepotistic élan” with professional competence. For, tucked in this so-called bounty of openness lay another layer of opacity, which in the ecstasy of vaunted transparency, was missed out by most. The APAR still remained a deceptive appraisal formulation, staying within the same axis of: Officer-Reported-Upon–>Reporting Officer–>Reviewing Officer–>Accepting Officer, and then to the Officer-Reported-Upon for intimation, thereby retaining every symptom of yore. Neither the peer group (for sake of comparative appraisal) nor the outside world (for sake of output) was privy to the public servants’ inexorable nexuses! Only that the net had been widened to include one more participant!

Also read: Ridding Bureaucracy of Deadwood

See its outcome. The appraisal has gotten outrageously liberal showing a net-worth far in excess of the “real”, and barring a few, almost all rated as “Outstanding” in the 8-10 numerical grading. This, in a way, was inevitable. Today, in times of ceaseless and shameless nepotism, and in a bureaucratic system built on the bedrock of networking that has perpetuated its efficacy over past decades, how many seniors would you expect to have the courage of their conviction and the intellectual honesty to assess subordinates fairly and objectively? They naturally prefer playing to the gallery, abjuring tumult and menace from subordinates. Naturally therefore, most assessments are trumped-up – and far from honest. The effort to foist objectivity through transparency in an ecosystem that is unprofessional to the core, still nursing a horse-and-buggy-day outlook, is back to square one. Nepotism has aced professionalism and merit.

To fob off complaints of this reclusive subjectivism, the DoPT invokes the services of Experts Panels comprising retired Secretary-level officers to assess the APAR/ACR dossiers of officers for empanelment at JS/AS/Secretary ranks, before seeking approval of the Civil Services Board/Screening Committee of Secretaries, and eventually of the Appointment Committee of Cabinet. The PMO, bristling with poor performance of sundry senior officers and their canonical lethargy, has forced the DoPT to induct lateral recruits and transmute this cloistered system into a 360-degree feedback mechanism – a tool used by international organizations and many foreign governments to fill top slots based on feedback from peers, seniors and juniors who they worked closely with, including feedback from outside the government turf. How far this 360-degree assessment in an ecosystem of nepotism which apotheosizes secrecy is effective is moot.

So, given the above, the APAR for all its weaknesses, still remains the cornerstone, a vital cog around which other inputs wrap around. It also is the cog that pivots other crucial activities and brings in goodies and bounties for government officials. With percentile the base for relative assessment for moderation, it’s surprising that DoPT’s sanctuary syndrome still holds, shrouded in the opaque vestibular Officer-Reported-Upon–Reporting Officer–Reviewing Officer–Accepting Officer axis. It’s hard to overlook both the nepotistic as also the vindictive streaks, which the DoPT’s 360-degree scrutiny seeks to disavow.

Also read: Indian Bureaucracy – A Kafkaesque Drama

Since the nepotistic is well-known, let me highlight the vindictive. Of the several cases that bobs up to my mind, I recall a case where the Reviewing Officer while differing with the Reporting Officer opined that the officer “seemed opinionated and motivated to assert intellectual superiority” and “it is hoped that with the passage of time and experience these edges are rounded off, which will help in reaching his full potential and using his competence in the organization’s interest“. It was an assessment entirely the Reviewing Officer’s value judgment, not based on professional performance. “Opinionated” and “assert intellectual superiority” masks, which a psychologist will explain stems from a grand delusion of one’s self-worth segued with a sense of inferiority/inadequacy he experiences when confronting the object; to calm his unquiet mind and balm his disquiet soul, he uses the only weapon available with him – venting his spleen on the object.

It can get worse when officers perform the adversarial finance role, with the Reviewing Officer failing to appreciate their job profile, and equates it with any other Division, which it is not. Though integrated with the administrative ministry, to ensure objectivity in financial scrutiny and analysis, a check and balance procedure has been sculpted into the financial advice system, with the finance division directly accessing the finance ministry to ensure functional autonomy. This is a conscious choice, so that public expenditure is incurred after adequate due diligence, independently, with appropriate rigour in arm’s length scrutiny. Sadly, many senior officers in administrative ministries, with little or no knowledge of the role of integrated financial advisory system, often try supervening in the finance division to see their schemes through with their warped ways that aren’t in sync with subject orders. Many secretaries including even those with prior experience of working in finance ministry/division pitifully lack financial insight. So egregious interferences can get that references (though rare) are made to the finance ministry and, even, the PMO (Disclosure: As Additional Secretary and Financial Adviser in the Ministry of Environment, Forest, & Climate Change, I too resorted to this instrument). The outcome though interesting, are intriguing – quite in tune with extant governance meme!

How, then, are such nexuses to be fixed? Is transparency the answer?

Also read: A Sad Day for Indian Judiciary: Prashant Bhushan, Supreme Court & MCI Case

Given the endemic impulses that pulsate just below the surface and quite in keeping with the culture and ethos of the country with subjectivism and intellectual dishonesty colonizing body governance, possibly the only way to mitigate the besetting issue is complete openness. Why disclose the APAR only to the officer-reported-upon where it vests, even perpetuates, the potential cozy relationships between Officer-Reported-Upon and Reporting/Reviewing Officer(s)/Accepting Officer(s)? APARs, after all, are appraisals of performance done in public sphere by public officials. Unlike medical cases, they don’t fall under RTI non-disclosures of the RTI Act; why must, then, not put them in public domain for perusal? Yes, the APAR forms will need suitable modification to separate out personal from public information to sync with provisions of Section 8(j) of the RTI Act. I am fully aware there shall be the inevitable clamour from civil servants about invasion of privacy and reputation (look at Supreme Court judges recent efforts to protect the “reputation” of lawyers not selected as judges!) and twisting of interpretations of Section 8(j) to mask their own ineptitude and performance as de facto private servants perennially pursuing private interests while masquerading as (uncivil) public servants. The truth is openness will simmer and soundlessly spread, slamming and shaming “favourites” and “favour-grantees” as it inexorably breaches the citadel of unholy impulses of the “perverse”. It’s doubtless the best prophylactic and solvent regardless how much it may sound outrageous today – with the sunlight disinfecting the addled pool towards a fairer assessment.

Also read: 3-Part Series on Ethics in Public Governance by Sudhansu Mohanty

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The writer, Sudhansu Mohanty, is an acclaimed author and, among other assignments, also worked as Additional Secretary & Financial Adviser to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change.

Tweet at Sudhansu: @MohantyMohanti

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