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Friday, June 12, 2015, 10:00

'Cleaning up’ India’s civil service

'Cleaning up’ India’s civil service
A thermal power plant in India’s Gujarat state. The National Thermal Power Corporation was one of only three government-run institutions to make the list of the top 100 Indian businesses to work for in a recent report. (AFP)

Over the years the Indian civil service, including the public sector in general, has gained a reputation for inefficiency and corruption. It is this dysfunctional bureaucratic system that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to fix immediately after he assumed office a year ago.

As a first step, Modi suggested that heads of all government departments should make a beginning by “cleaning up” their offices in order to improve both the workplace and work culture.

The magnitude of the task that Modi has set out for himself and the Indian bureaucracy was reflected in a recent study, Top 100 India’s Best Companies to Work for 2014, by the consultancy firm Great Place to Work Institute. Only three government institutions made the list: National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), a public sector enterprise under the Ministry of Power; the Indian Oil Corporation, a state-owned oil and gas company; and GAIL (India), the largest state-owned natural gas processing and distribution company.

In contrast, the private sector has “successfully managed employee perception at the overall level” in the past few years, according to Prasenjit Bhattacharya, CEO for India at the Great Place to Work Institute.

According to the institute’s study, some of the key factors that enable employers to make their workplace culture stand out are genuine care for employees, willingness to share wealth and equal opportunity for recognition, candid communication, reliability of managers, collaboration with employees, impartiality and opportunities for career growth. In other words, areas where the sloth-ridden public sector falls woefully short.

Nevertheless, public sector enterprises still play a pivotal role in the Indian economy, as they account for over 22 percent of the country’s GDP, more than 20 percent of direct and indirect tax collections, and around 10 percent of total employment in the organized sector.

Shatrunjay Krishna, director at the consultancy firm Towers Watson India, says government institutions and public sector enterprises can become a better place to work by attracting good talent.

“It can be done. It’s mostly related to perceptions of the bureaucracy, red tape, tenure-based hierarchy and not very inspiring leadership (which is not true always),” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly.

“Also, the public sector firms that are relatively better on the above characteristics are not able to stand out as they do not communicate well to change these perceptions in the talent market.”

He says government enterprises need to do better in the “articulation and communication of ‘employer value proposition’ (which covers the rewards and benefits that positively influence target candidates and employees)”.

Krishna adds that public sector enterprises need to change their performance, rewards and career management frameworks. “They can promote lateral entry to infuse talent at the mid-to-senior level, which in turn will challenge the status quo,” he says.

Suchita Dutta, executive director of the Indian Staffing Federation (ISF), an umbrella organization of human resources firms, says government companies can provide growth opportunities for deserving candidates.

However, the Indian public sector has “never been portrayed” along these lines, she says. “So the perception (about public sector firms) needs a makeover.”

Dutta is confident that the current Indian government will rise to the challenge and make the Indian public sector “result-oriented”.

Lant Pritchett, professor of international development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, notes the tendency of civil servants and the Indian public sector to increasingly tailor their performance to the needs of their political masters. Hence he describes India’s administration and the public sector as a “flailing state”.

Naushad Forbes, director of the engineering firm Forbes Marshall, says there is “nothing that says that the government and public sector are necessarily not great places to work”.

“It depends on how they are run. In Singapore, the government and public sector jobs are the most attractive in the country and attract the best talent,” he says. “However, if public sector jobs are subject to political interference, then that affects top management and the entire culture of the organization.

“In India we have had many examples of legendary public sector managers such as Verghese Kurien, who revolutionized the (dairy) industry and inspired many,” he adds.

Kurien, the founding chairman of the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, was responsible for the success of the Amul brand of dairy products in India.

Modi, too, seems to believe that the Indian public sector can be made more efficient and performance-oriented. On many occasions in the past year, he has stated that a capable bureaucracy can fix much of what ails India.

This was what Modi largely achieved in western India’s Gujarat state, where he was the chief minister for more than a decade. During that period, he relied on the civil service to successfully run the state administration, which also enabled public sector firms to flourish.

As prime minister, Modi has clearly stated that he wants state-run bodies across India to operate more efficiently. For instance, he is reluctant to sell Air India, the national carrier, because he hopes to turn it around under state control.

However, reformers are calling for more space for private sector bodies, as it has been estimated that the private sector is responsible for around 90 percent of employment in India.

Vineet Nayar, former CEO of the IT services company HCL Technologies, recently said that India needs to change fast by reducing government bureaucracy and building an “evolutionary advantage”.

“The economic progress of any nation is closely entwined with the aspirations and capabilities of its corporate sector,” he said in an article that he co-wrote with US management expert Gary Hamel.

Ritika Moolchandani, an analyst at the Great Place to Work Institute, says people look for opportunities where they feel their work is more than just a job.

“Employees wish to be a part of organizations where they feel their input is valued. Hence, organizations in the public sector must help employees understand how their work relates to the organization’s higher purpose,” Moolchandani says.

She believes that by merely paying high salaries, the private sector “cannot attract and retain talented employees”.

Echoing this, Dutta of ISF says it is not always the salaries that keep a person motivated enough to remain in any job. “It’s about the opportunity and exposure. They need to be recognized and motivated,” she says.

Since becoming prime minister, Modi has been spending a lot of time with the heads of many government institutions. The meetings are said to have a corporate air, with Modi acting as a chief executive. During his interactions with senior civil servants and other government officials, dates for specific targets — or “deliverables” — are set.

“As long as employees understand how their work relates to the organization’s higher purpose as well as to its business success, and (the organization) involves employees in efforts to give back to the community, people would still be willing to take up government and civil service jobs,” Moolchandani says.

She cites the example of the NTPC, where every employee knows the statement: “We light every third lightbulb in the country.”

The NTPC has around 24,000 employees. It was ranked 42nd in the Great Place to Work Institute’s 2014 list of the country’s best companies.

“Pride of nation building is definitely an aspect that deserves emphasis,” says Unnikrishnan K Nair, professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode.

“If you can have nation builders as the captains of the public sector, you will see more public sector companies becoming a great place to work.”

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