KM Chandrasekhar served as the cabinet secretary, the highest post in the Indian civil service, for four years from 2007–11. Chandrasekhar is an Indian Administrative Services officer from the 1970 batch of the Kerala cadre and served a 15-year-long tenure with the central government. During this period, he served as a joint secretary to the minister of commerce, a revenue secretary, the deputy chief of mission in the Indian embassy at Brussels, and India’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation.
Over a series of emails exchanged in early August, Nileena MS, a reporting fellow with The Caravan, spoke to Chandrasekhar about the 360-degree appraisal system—the current process for empanelling civil servants with the government of India. The former cabinet secretary discussed the limitations of the system and the necessity to replace it with a continuous, performance-based and result-oriented assessment process. “There is a discernible lack of transparency in the present system, which makes it rather unfair to the officer,” Chandrasekhar said. “The notion that a selection system for serving officers and managers should be opaque is not in conformity with modern practice.”
Nileena MS: What is your opinion on the introduction of the 360-degree appraisal system in the process of empanelment of officers? Do you think obtaining the feedback of juniors, peers, and external stakeholders is an effective tool for performance appraisal?
KM Chandrasekhar: First, it seems to lack transparency and could be easily abused to favour this or that individual at some stage or other. We have past experience of political governments and bureaucracies misusing systems, and hence transparency, to the extent possible, is essential.
Second, the 360-degree assessment, by itself, does not appear to take into account the actual career record of an officer, built up over the years.
Third, it denies the officer sufficient opportunity to appeal against the decision or to challenge it effectively in a court of law as the grounds on which she has not been empaneled are not known to her.
Fourth, as I understand, the 360-degree assessment is initially done by a group of individuals. From my experience, such groups could often be dominated by individuals who are, by nature, aggressive and develop strong likes and dislikes based on insufficient data. There could also be individuals in the group who can be easily manipulated or are guided by particular interests.
Fifth, during the course of an officer’s career, she can obviously not be popular with all. She would necessarily have to take strong positions on particular issues of public interest and this could create enemies for her both within and outside the bureaucratic system. The 360-degree assessment carries the inherent danger of making such officers vulnerable, and thus, unwittingly further diluting the effectiveness of the “steel frame.”
Sixth, a 360-degree assessment, as it is applied in management by some companies, invariably involves a discussion between the assessing authority and the reported officer, and a regular system of feedback to her. This is conspicuously missing in the system introduced in India.
NMS: How is the 360-degree profiling functioning in comparison with the earlier system of performance assessment based on the Annual Confidential Reports or Annual Performance Appraisal Reports?
KMC: The previous system had many serious limitations. It was based entirely on a scoring and averaging system and all the scores were made open to the reported officer. In actual practice, this led to high scores for almost all officers with the result that the empanelment process would hardly take into account the performance and achievements of the officer. Over time, a score-based assessment system could lead to the panel rigidly conforming to the original UPSC rank list. The narrative reporting system that prevailed earlier was a little better, but overall, I would say that sufficient attention has not been given in India at any time towards building an efficient performance-assessment system.
NMS: The main criticism against the 360-degree appraisal is that there are no guidelines governing its implementation, but a former bureaucrat told me that it is not practical to form a concrete system for this method.
KMC: There is a discernible lack of transparency in the present system, which makes it rather unfair to the officer. The notion that a selection system for serving officers and managers should be opaque is not in conformity with modern practice.
NMS: In its report on the appraisal and empanelment of civil-service officers, the parliamentary standing committee recommended that the government should look into the possibility of a limited disclosure of appraisal reports. Do you think the disclosure of reports could adversely affect the grading process?
KMC: Disclosure per se will not damage the system, if it is seen to be fairly based on performance. It is the absence of a results-based management system and the lack of more clearly defined objectives that makes assessment difficult. The 360-degree assessment system would look less abstruse if it builds in a practice of discussion with the reported officer, as is the practice in companies in which the system is in vogue.
NMS: Do you think the 360-degree appraisal system could demotivate young officers from taking decisions that may displease people in power?
KMC: In theory, it could lead to a situation in which officers could be looking upwards, downwards and sideways and trying not to displease any one, as they do not know whose opinion will prevail at the time of empanelment. In actual fact, there may not be so much impact. Young officers do not really think of empanelment in the early stages of their career. Empanelment begins to occupy their minds only a year or two before it is actually due, which is 20 to 25 years into their careers. Also, as age limits for entry have been considerably relaxed over the years—and career time-span accordingly shortened—more officers could increasingly choose to remain within their cadres where career progression is generally quicker.
NMS: Many studies suggest 360-degree profiling for developmental purposes than for appraisal. According to you, what would be the most effective method for the appraisal of civil servants during empanelment?
KMC: Any system should, in my opinion, be performance and result oriented. I had recommended a system whereby the reporting officer narrates her actual experience during the year, upon which the reporting officer could give her comments. Both these sets of comments would then go to a third group of officers. This group will then take up the assessment of the entire batch on the basis of performance during the year and clearly identify the top 20 percent of the performers. Such assessment, built up over the years, could give a clear idea to the screening committee of concrete achievements, rather than impressions. The periodic use of the 360-degree assessment for feedback to the officer for her development is a good idea. There are several systems of assessment used by different countries, which could be studied.
NMS: What other administrative reforms would you like to see in the appraisal and empanelment of civil servants?
KMC: I believe that assessment of civil servants should contribute to improved performance in public administration. Assessment can only be one aspect of an overall performance management system, as recommended by the 2nd ARC [The Second Administrative Reforms Commission is a commission of inquiry set up in 2005 to make recommendations for revamping the public administrative system]. The present prime minister also subscribed to this view during his visit to Malaysia in 2015, when he advocated the introduction of the PEMANDU system in India [The Performance Management and Delivery Unit, or PEMANDU, is an agency in the Malaysian prime minister’s office that is implementing a national economic transformation programme]. We had introduced a Results Framework Document system in India. I am of the view that we did not give enough time for the system to mature and did not make a serious attempt to correct it from time to time and build performance management as an essential component of public administration. Once a performance-management system is built, an effective performance-assessment system can be plugged into it.
There cannot be a standard template for performance appraisal; it would vary according to the requirements of the job or service. Our neighbour, Nepal, introduced an interesting system, where appraisal was at three levels—the immediate supervisor, the reviewer and a reviewing committee—and the highest weight was given to performance against defined job content. Overall, I would say that performance appraisal should be a continuing, rather than one-off process. It should be linked to a politically-driven process of performance management and administrative reform, and it should focus on results achieved rather than subjective impressions of individuals.
This interview has been edited.
Nileena MS is a reporting fellow with The Caravan.