Performance could have been a clean, strong word. But in Indian administration, the word has long lost its decisive outlines and become blurred with overlapping instructions and interests. So the recent changes made in the All India Services (Death-cum-Retirement Benefits) Rules, 1958, following the recommendations made three years ago by the second administrative reforms commission, to ensure that officers in the all-India services remain on their toes are a good first step towards efficiency. If an officer is found lacking in performance or unfit for the service after 15 years, he will have to retire in “the public interest”, although his retirement benefits will remain intact. Another review will take place after 25 years of service or when the officer turns 50, whichever is earlier. Originally, the only performance review came after 30 years of service. But an officer could be sacked if proved a criminal or if the Central vigilance commission directed his retirement. The last two conditions remain unchanged.
If performance reviews encourage accountability, transparency, efficiency, competitiveness, skill-development, independent thinking and so on, nothing could be better for the Indian public. People would be happy just if public goods were delivered on time. In a time of change, the idea of a performance review seems particularly smart, suggesting forthrightness and focus. It is a different thing that the political-bureaucratic scene is a seething morass of competing interests and networks of patronage. Administrative demands and rules do not always chime in with politicians’ desires. Forms of compliance are part of the job, abuse and corruption are just a logical step beyond. So the first questions regarding the changes would be: what are the principles by which ‘performance’ will be judged, and how would practical and non-material targets be set? Most important, who will judge administrative officers? Their peers? Seniors? Politicians? Judges? Given the bureaucratic and political scene, each set of reviewers could orient the review towards a fresh set of interests that would have little or nothing to do with the public. If the changes are to be meaningful, every aspect of the review process has to be carefully and objectively worked out so that it does not become a keener weapon in the hands of politicians and the best officers can find the space to perform as well as they can.