How Commonplace is ‘Outstanding’?
Once a senior officer endures the tedium of commenting on various aspects of the officer’s performance, space is left for her to give her general opinion of the officer being assessed. Even though this presents a window of opportunity for the reporting officer to exhibit her literary talents, not many venture to do so, because junior officers provide little inspiration for effusiveness. While I generally stay away from regional stereotyping, I believe that the typical south Indian officer is more conservative in this regard. Complimentary comments are rationed out by them, as if each of them were only given a limited supply of these. Where a typically large hearted north Indian officer might launch himself into poetic raptures about his junior’s talents, a south Indian is only cautiously optimistic. A colleague of mine complained bitterly about his boss. ‘All that my boss could muster while writing my ACR was that “the lad shows some promise”’. ‘And that too, after I had completed sixteen years of service’, he fumed.
After these general remarks, comes the final hurdle to completing an appraisal. An officer has to be graded, across five categories; ‘poor’, ‘average’, ‘good’, ‘very good’ and ‘outstanding’. It is rare that an officer is graded as ‘poor’. This is considered a ‘bad ACR’ and a bad ACR has to be shared with its victim.
The Indian Administrative Services in its internal dealings, generally shies away from confrontation. There is the fabled notion of esprit de corps, which, most people believe, will be seriously threatened if we say exactly what we feel about each other, to each other. That is why, even though we might feel that all the brains of our subordinates might fit on a pin head and leave enough space for a boxing ring, we do not give them ‘poor’ CRs. It is simply not done.
We give them outstanding CRs instead.
The norm is that nearly everybody is given an outstanding CR. The reason is that as one goes senior and there are screening processes put in place, the simplest, rough and ready way is to count the number of outstanding CRs that an officer might have and then use this mathematical chart to clear the officer for the next level.
As an example, let me speak of the first such real hurdle in climbing the ladder. Till about the sixteenth year of service, an IAS officer of undistinguished, average performance can make the grade. The words used to describe different levels of IAS officers is traditional jargon of the narrowest kind, which nobody else can understand. Thus, an officer at the lowest level is called as belonging to the Junior Scale. Mercifully, the stay in Junior Scale is short; just about four years, after which the officer gets promoted to the Senior Scale. Then, there is something known as the Junior Administrative Grade or the ‘Selection Grade’. I am told there is a difference between the two, but I could never discern that, and survived unscathed for twenty seven years in the government with this glaring deficiency.
The real big step in the career progression of an IAS officer is a process known as empanelment. Contrary to popular notion, Empanelment does not refer to the encasing of an IAS officer in Formica sheets, even though, by the sixteenth year, he might begin to resemble a lifeless sheet of laminate more and more. Empanelment refers to the screening process by which officers are declared as eligible to join a panel of a selected few, from which Joint Secretaries to the Government of India might be selected. The process of empanelment depends upon a study of the ACRs of officers. While there is no official confirmation of the process, it is widely believed that empanelment requires that of the last ten or twelve ACRs, at least eight or ten should be ‘Outstanding’ ones – nobody knows exactly how many, but everybody is unanimous that some form of cut off, determined by the numbers of ‘Outstanding ACRs’, is followed.
Joint Secretaries are awesomely powerful people. India is a federal country, where every State stands to gain from the discretionary decisions of the Government of India, and most of these decisions are taken by Joint Secretaries. Most Secretaries are burnt out and in senescence by the time they reach that level; so they depend upon their Joint Secretaries for most decisions.
Therefore, there is a great incentive for States to ensure that as many of their officers are empanelled as Joint Secretaries.
This in turn drives the incentive for senior officers to give nearly everybody ‘Outstanding’ CRs. Unless, of course, you are a South Indian boss, in which case you do not respond to any form of incentive and you remain, at best, cautiously optimistic.
The question still remains that if nearly everybody is graded as ‘Outstanding’, how might the ACR be used to provide hints of the true talent of the officer? In other words, how can one distinguish the difference between an ‘Outstanding’ officer of average quality and a truly outstanding ‘Outstanding’ officer?
Natwar Singh, the former External Affairs Minister and a former bureaucrat himself, found the perfect way to do this. Exasperated at having to see an endless stream of ‘Outstanding’ ACRs for officers who were anything but outstanding, he remarked on one of them. ‘This officer belongs to the category of 90 percent of officers who are graded ‘Outstanding’.