May 13, 2010

The great promotion debacle

The rationale of selection given by the government was cogent but got diluted by the sheer number of ignored officers and some glaring instances of double promotions

By Tasneem Noorani

The decision of the prime minister to promote 54 officers to BPS-22 in one go not only provided amusement and drama to public but also embarrassed some very fine officers -- who would have been promoted anyway, under any rules and circumstances. Some of them are now reportedly considering resigning in the face of humiliation that they have had to suffer for no fault their own.

Promotions of 54 officers in one go was unprecedented and, therefore, attracted undue attention of media and public. Normally, 8 to 10 officers are promoted to BPS-22 at one time. In this case too it would have been prudent to announce the promotions in installments -- perhaps service carder wise, to avoid undue attention, and also to not demean the aura attached to the high grade.

The PM has always had the discretion to promote officers from BPS-21 to BPS-22 unlike promotion in the lower grades (except that prior to 2001 he used to be assisted by a Selection Board formed by himself). Promotions up to BPS-18 are based on 'seniority' and 'fitness' while promotions from BPS-19 to 22 are based on 'merit' and 'fitness'. So promotion as a right, based on seniority, does not exist to any grade above BPS-18. The requirement, however, is that each candidate must be considered and reasons must be given for ignoring him, which was apparently not done in the current case.

Discretion available to the chief executive is an accepted norm in all public administration principles. In the army, the COAS has absolute discretion to promote officers from Major General to Lt. General. Similarly, in the private sector, the board of directors or the major shareholder has the discretion to select the CEO. In the government also similar discretion has always been exercised. However since the pyramid at the top is flat it can accommodate a lot of BPS-22 officers -- and so we have had innumerable poor samples in BPS-22 in the past. This is probably why there have not been too many appeals in the court against injustices in promotions to BPS-22.

This time the scale of exercise gave the whole affair a profile and also resulted in its demise. A total of 267 BPS-22 officers were considered from all service groups, out of which only 54 were considered suitable for promotion. So against 54 happy individuals, there were 213 devastated officers, each one having more than 35 years in the government and with his or her own influence groups and lobbies.

When one looks at the statistics of winners against losers, service-wise, the situation is rather alarming. In Police Group, 9 out of a total of 41 officers were promoted. Likewise in Foreign Service, 5 out of 20; in the Secretariat Group, 10 out of 40; in DMG, 21 out of 63; in Income Tax, only 2 out of 14 were promoted and; in Audit and Accounts, 29 were considered and only 4 were elevated. The interesting common factor in each of these service groups is that the last man on each list was promoted over the heads of scores of seniors.

All this was bound to create a formidable lobby against the decision of the PM, making him rather unpopular with the bulk of the top bureaucracy. Some of the good officers promoted were themselves rather embarrassed at the large-scale slaughter of their seniors.

The rationale of selection given by the government -- i.e. gender balance, provincial representation, incumbents of BPS-22 posts being in BPS-21 -- was very cogent but was diluted by the sheer number of ignored officers and some glaring instances of double promotion of such officers who were not necessarily known for their competence. In some cases, there was also unprecedented induction into superior service groups -- thus hinting at excessive use of discretion.

Generally, denying an officer his promotion is a major penalty which is normally issued after a formal inquiry. Therefore, here the case of the government got seriously undermined because it recorded no justification for the officers ignored. Saying that officers ignored are not superseded and will be considered again, is hardly an argument which is likely to allay the sentiments of the ignored officers.

Now what should be the future course of action? Discretion is one power which should not be taken away from the chief executive of the country -- because often we get officers who are outstanding on paper because culturally we are a polite people and don't want to offend anyone and consequently give outstanding evaluations, when the officer actually deserves to be thrown out. As a matter of fact, the more incompetent and corrupt the officer is, the more energetic he is likely to be in pursuing his 'reporting officer' to give him a good report. At the end of the day, the PM has to make his choice to fill the policy-making positions of the government. He has to appoint competent officers, based on his own assessment and the officers' reputation -- which normally is a better guide than the officers' file.

The problem is: the PM is unlikely to know personally as large a number as 267 officers, as was put up to him this year. In the absence of any advisory body, as is currently the case, the matter gets into the hands of the few officers who are close to the PM or his personal friends and colleagues. That advice more often than not is subjective.

There is, therefore, a need to make rules which should lay down broad parameters of eligibility, an advisory board of sorts to advise the PM where he feels he needs assistance, so that the PM can select the best officers available.

Officers selected on other credentials than merit may provide some short-term gain to the PM (in terms of having obliged some important person), but one incompetent and corrupt officer at that level means the destruction of the whole ministry of the government -- a loss at the national level. Perhaps the new rules alluded to in the Supreme Court judgment can bring us a better crop of policy planners in the government and thus start a march towards the distant dream of good governance.

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