Why India’s civil servants are disaffected with the 360-degree empanelment process for top central government posts

By Nileena MS | 12 August 2018

In April 2015, the central government introduced the 360-degree appraisal procedure for the empanelment of civil servants for central government posts. Three years on, while the government is yet to frame any guidelines for its implementation, the process has received heavy criticism for its lack of transparency and its susceptibility to discrimination. Empanelment is the process through which a pool of civil-service officers is selected for appointment to the top bureaucratic posts of joint secretary and above with the government of India. The 360-degree appraisal system, or the Multi Source Feedback—introduced as an additional overarching step during the review for empanelment—is designed to consider feedback on the candidates from peers, subordinates, and other stakeholders, in addition to superiors.

The 360-degree appraisal first came under the spotlight in August 2017, when a parliamentary committee criticised the system for its opacity and subjectivity, noting that it was also “susceptible to being manipulated.” It also came under scrutiny that month after Vineet Chawdhry, an Indian Administrative Services officer who was denied a secretary-level appointment with the central government, challenged the decision before the Central Administrative Tribunal. Chawdhry argued that the system led to discrimination against officers and that it was not governed by any legal procedure. He stated that the 360-degree system was “neither reasonable nor rational, a whimsical exercise of arbitrary executive authority far in excess of any delegated legislation, neither resting on any legislation nor any rules and neither transparent nor fair.”

Both former and current upper-level secretaries of the government of India have expressed similar concerns about the 360-degree system. In an interview with The Caravan, KM Chandrasekhar, one of India’s longest serving cabinet secretaries, identified key concerns with the system, such as the lack of transparency, the absence of an appeal process, and the possibility of bias and discrimination. Further, an additional chief secretary told me he believed that he had been wrongfully denied a secretary-level position, but that he was choosing not to speak up because he did not want to invite “any trouble.” In its report, the parliamentary committee recommended the central government to “frame guidelines on the entire aspects of the process of 360 degree appraisal.” But despite the shortcomings and the committee’s recommendations, the 360-degree system continues to operate without any guidelines that could address these concerns.

The procedure for empanelment for senior positions in the government of India is prescribed in the Central Staffing Scheme. The CSS does not have any legislative backing—it is instead governed entirely by executive orders and primarily by a January 1996 order issued by the Department of Personnel and Training. Under the CSS, a pool of officers from 37 participating services, including the All India Services—the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Police Service, and the Indian Forest Service—and some of the Central Civil Services, are recommended for empanelment. From these recommendations, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which presently comprises the prime minister and the home minister, decides on the final list of civil servants empanelled for appointment to the government of India.

Till 2007, the empanelment process under the CSS relied on Annual Confidential Reports, or ACRs, submitted by superior officers, the contents of which were not disclosed to the officers being appraised. Only adverse remarks against an officer were disclosed and only if the officer made a representation seeking such a disclosure. In 2008, the Supreme Court held that the non-disclosure of details such as the grades awarded to the officers was “arbitrary and as such violative of Article 14 of the Constitution”—which enshrines the right to equality. Following this, the ACR was replaced by a more transparent system that mandates superior officers to submit Annual Performance Appraisal Reports, which are not confidential, of their subordinate officers who were eligible for empanelment.

The APAR review process mandates superior officers to grade the eligible officers on a scale of 0–10 on different parameters, such as “work output, personality traits and functional competency of the individual.” An expert panel, which is constituted for every service and comprises retired secretaries to the central government, reviews the appraisal reports of shortlisted candidates, moderates the grading if required, and finally recommends a list of officers for empanelment. A Civil Services Board, comprising four secretaries—the cabinet secretary, the personnel secretary, an establishment officerof the status of additional secretary, and a secretary to the government of India—then reviews this shortlist and makes its final recommendations for empanelment to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. Finally, this committee determines the list of civil servants who are empanelled for appointment.

The 360-degree appraisal introduces a new layer to this process that can override the recommendations under the APAR system. In addition to reviewing the appraisal reports and other information—such as vigilance reports—the expert panel is required to speak to a minimum of five persons, including subordinates, peers, or even stakeholders who may have a say or who came in contact with the officer. The August 2017 report by the parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievance, law and justice discusses the empanelment process in detail. According to the report, the expert panel looks into six parameters during the 360-degree review—integrity, behavioral competencies, functional skills, domain expertise, delivery, and potential. After considering the past performance records, the multi-source feedback and vigilance status, the expert panels makes its recommendations to the Civil Services Board.

On the surface, the 360-degree appraisal may appear to be more democratic because it broadens the performance review process, seeking feedback from junior colleagues and external stakeholders as well as superiors. However, former bureaucrats, serving officers, and politicians disagree.

According to them, the lack of clear guidelines and the opaque nature of the process results in the non-empanelment of honest and capable officers, while the reasons for it remain a secret. Unlike the ACR process, there is no obligation on the expert panel to inform the eligible officers of anyadverse remarks made during the multi source feedback process. In May 2018, Subramanian Swamy, a member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha and a BJP leader, called the 360-degree system a “sinister procedure” that “keeps out honest officers from promotion.” He wrote on Twitter, “In this, merit is only a criterion. Important is the subjective pliability, a tool to keep out meritorious. I will write to PM for scrapping of this subversive method.”

The parliamentary committee’s report, too, notes that the appraisal system is “opaque, non-transparent and subjective.” It further states, “The feedback received from subordinates and stakeholders maybe biased and lack objectivity, particularly if the officer had to discipline his subordinates or hewas unable to meet the unjustified demands of stakeholders.” The committee also took note of the recommendations in a 2008 report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission—a commission of inquiry set up in 2005 to make recommendations for revamping the public administrative system. With respect to the 360-degree appraisal system, the reforms commission observed, “In the context of India where strong hierarchical structures exist and for historical and social reasons it may not be possible to introduce this system unless concerns of integrity and transparency are addressed.”

The parliamentary committee’s report also includes the DoPT’s explanation for introducing the 360-degree appraisal process. It states that the shift from confidential reports to the disclosed appraisal reports led to “a tendency to give very good remarks to theofficers reported upon because they know that the officer concerned is going to see thoseremarks.” According to the report, there was a “general reluctance to write unpleasant things.” Apart from this, the DoPT added, the difference in grading by the separate authorities during the empanelment process was “making it difficult to take a final view.

The DoPT submitted to the committee that these factors resulted in situations “where officers who were known to be of doubtful integrity could get empanelled” because they had outstanding performance reports.  “On the other hand,” it stated, “there was a possibility that officers who did not have the requisite gradings but were otherwise outstanding in their work, got left out. It became difficult to distinguish between the best and the others.” It further states, “The earlier system of empanelment did not fully capture the qualities of officers in terms of integrity and capability and there was a felt need to improve the mechanism.” It is in this context that the 360-degree appraisal system was introduced

An argument often quoted in favour of the 360-degree system is that it is widely used in the corporate sector. However, it is pertinent to note that the system has conventionally been largely used for evaluation and development—which entails discussing the feedback with the employees—rather than an opaque appointment procedure. The cabinet secretary Chandrasekhar, too, emphasised this aspect in his interview. “The 360 degree assessment, as practiced in management, always involves discussion with the reported officer,” he said. “This is missing in the present government system, which, according to some officers who have spoken to me, is shrouded in mystery.”

The concerns arising out of such secrecy are compounded by the absence of a prescribed grievance redressal procedure. While a grievance with a rating given in the APAR may be challenged before an appellate body called the Referral Board, or through a memorial submitted to the president of India, there is no provision for a similar challenge to the feedback given during the 360-degree appraisal because its details are unknown.The parliamentary committee, too, takes note of this concern: “The 360 degree evaluation system which overrides the assessment based on APAR system needs to be transparent. Officers not recommended by the 360 degree evaluation panel should be told the reason and they should get a chance to represent before the empanelment decision is finalized.” In view of this, the committee had recommended “that the Government should look into the aspect of limited disclosure, somewhere between the ACR and APAR so as to retain best of both the procedures.”

The IAS officer Chawdhry’s case against his non-appointment was the first legal challenge arising out of a decision made under the 360-degree appraisal process. In the absence of any prescribed appellate procedure, Chawdhry had approached the Central Administrative Tribunal in August 2017. The tribunal directed the cabinet secretary to explain the government’s position on the matter in a “speaking order”—a legal term used for a reasoned order, or one that speaks for itself—by November 2017. In June this year, the Business Standard reported that the appointments committee had carried out another appraisal and “again found Chawdhary unfit for the top slot because of his ‘general reputation,’ the vigilance reports on him and the views of the experts on the internal review panel.” Though Chawdhry was not appointed with the central government, he went on to become the chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh.

Chawdhry has been named in several cases of corruption—most notably, he was allegedly involved in a Rs 7,000-crore scam at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The scam allegedly took place between 2010 and 2012, when Chawdhry was the deputy director of AIIMS, though he was later issued a clean chit by the health ministry in an affidavit before the Delhi High Court, in May 2017. Even if the decision not to appoint Chawdhry to the secretary-level position in the union government was justified, it remains unanswered why the same concerns did not prevent his appointment as the chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh. These issues would have been clarified, if not for the opacity surrounding the 360-degree appraisal review.

The 360-degree process has caused disaffection among other serving bureaucrats as well. In July this year, the DoPT released lists of civil servants who were empanelled for secretary-level posts with the central government. The additional chief secretary to a state government told me he was not empanelled despite earning excellent APAR grades and a clean chit from the intelligence agencies. Earlier in his career, the additional chief secretary had raised allegations about corruption within the health ministry, which led to punitive action against him. Despite repeated requests, he was not told why his empanelment was denied.. Unlike Chawdhry, the additional chief secretary does not intend to challenge the non-empanellment. “If I got to the Central Administrative Tribunal, I might be targeted for that,” he said “I have had a long, successful career and I don’t want any trouble when I am about to retire.”

Aarti Khosla, a former additional secretary with the government of India, has also publicly expressed her disaffection with the 360-degree appraisal system. In an article published in The Statesman in June this year, Khosla describes it as a “damaging change.” She writes, “There is no secrecy about persons approached for giving an opinion. Adverse feedback which could be out of jealousy, meanness or any other human frailty from the senior or because of a grudge over a reprimand by a junior can mar an officer’s career.” According to Khosla, “Many bright officers have been denied the move up because of this 360-degree assessment.”

Even internationally, the 360-degree appraisal method is discouraged as a process for evaluation and appointments. In 2014, the United States under-secretary of defence directed the RAND Corporation, a US-based non-profit institution working on issues of public policy, to assess “the feasibility of including a 360-degree assessment approach” for the military “as part of performance evaluation reports.”In its report, published in 2015, RAND notes that the purpose of the 360-degree appraisal is “entirely for individual development, not for evaluation.” It further states, “Even more important is the potential for negative impact on selection boards and the promotion process.”

But the appraisal system still has support within the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, as well as among some former bureaucrats. In December last year, Jitender Singh, the minister of state in the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances, and Pensions, stated before the Rajya Sabha that the 360-degree system ensured the “empanelment of officers in a transparent and objective manner.” Shailaja Chandra, a former secretary to the government of India and a former chief secretary of Delhi, also believes that the process is “by and large fair.” Chandra said that it is easy to ask for systematisation, “but it is not easy to implement such expectations.”

According to Chandra, during the process of empanelment, “senior persons dealing with extremely sensitive and important matters are under scrutiny.” She said, “Aspects such as theirrelationships with ministers, industrialists,the business community, and other interested stakeholders cannot be assessed unilaterally. Obtaining a 360-degree feedback is the only way.” Chandra added, “You have to trust senior functionaries tasked with doing due diligence. Demanding documentation of processes and transparency guidelines will not work.”

I tried to contact Pradeep Kumar Sinha and Nripendra Misra, who are presently serving, respectively, as the cabinet secretary and the principal secretary in the government of India. Both had not responded to my questions at the time this story was published.  

According to a former additional secretary, who also requested to remain anonymous, there was effectively nothing new about the 360-degree appraisal, because “the process has always been secretive.” The former bureaucrat claimed that the officers were never informed about why they were denied a particular post. “Even performing an official duty which is against the interest of the party in power could be the reason,” the former bureaucrat added. “But this would never be said openly.” However, the former cabinet secretary Chandrasekar disagreed with this view. Despite its limitations, he said, “the previous system was completely transparent, and could be questioned and challenged.”

The lack of clear guidelines governing the 360-degree appraisal review does appear to leave a lot to guesswork. The additional chief secretary told me, “Friends from my batch have stopped attending social gatherings or even telephoning friends from the civil services. We don’t know what or how things could be used against us when it comes to appraisal and promotion.”

Nileena MS is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. 

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