Discover more from #sarkari
Do you work in the government?
Question seems simple but the answers really long.
So, I could tell them "government", but I don't think what they want.
I don't want to tell them more, because anything I say is wrong.
- Riz Ahmed as a consultant in Government (Listen to this for reference).
People who’ve worked in the government in any capacity are privy to these questions either as the ones asking or being asked. Immigration and working in the government seem to have a lot more in common wherein how you attained the *entry* qualifies your allegiance and place within the social hierarchy.
Working in/for the government
The social hierarchy.
The creme de la creme are the officers (afsars). Within the officers too there is hierarchy depending on which services they are part of (administrative, forest etc) irrespective of whether they now hold the same posts.
When people ask if you are a government employee they wish to know whether you are a permanent employee or a contractual employee. Note: You are still an employee - but that's not what they are asking. Permanent employees have won their positions the hard way and they'll not let you in their networks so easily. The distinction is reminded to you very often.
The hierarchy is shown to you in interesting ways. First of all, there is @ias.nic.in and @gov.in. Then there is a @nic.in. A couple of years ago, contractors would also get @nic.in but eventually they introduced @govcontractors.in to demarcate contractual/third-party employees. The much touted new IT platform for capacity building still doesn't accept govcontractors.in as a valid email-address for sign-up leaving out all recent Young Professionals and contractual hires.
People who are contractual try to demarcate between themselves whether their salary comes from the government or it comes from a third-party. Where does your salary come from may also define the incentive structures that you operate within. Note that for the permanent ones, you all are the same so it doesn't matter.
In third-party, there are again two kinds: people who've just deputed to the government as a pass-over agreement, having lost their consulting firm's identities and those that are operating in teams setup by consulting firms and within their incentives. Within those, there are people who operate as back-office consultants, swooping in for presentations and submitting reports. It may appear that it is a divided house, but hating on the distant consultant unites almost everyone else.
It is not that the hierarchy is maintained by people within only, interactions *outside* also go similarly. When a group of "Young Civil Engineers" employed by PMGSY went to a bar in Connaught Place, the security guard made fun of the title "Young Civil Engineers" on their government issued employment ID cards. When meeting relatives or friends, often the conversation about working in the government is about the nature or perks of employment and not the nature of what I've been employed for? They are more interested in if I have a *white gaadi* versus what is that I really do. Once a friend really wanted to confirm whether my salary came from the Consolidated Fund of India.
Why is the hierarchy enforced so rigidly?
When someone says they work in tech, you expect high salaries and perks.
When someone says they work in an NGO, you expect social good work and low salaries
When someone says they work in the government, what's your first thought?
Stability and Stature?
In that definition, only the *afsars* fit and hence they remain coveted and on top of the pyramid. In a country with widespread poverty and discrimination on social grounds, a government job at least promises an irrevocable almost ticket out of everything. The *sarkari* dream. Permanent positions have reduced over time and people spend a significant part of their youth in preparation of these exams. There is a significant amount of work done before the job starts. So when it is finally achieved, it is natural to preserve its status and keep it separate from those that seem to share the same office and sometimes the same work but joined more *easily*.
Another reason I think there is a tiff between permanents and consultants is because consultants parachute into problem statements, report to officers that the permanent employees double their age don't get to and are allowed to function in an environment free of administrative baggage and accountability. Often they create a mess that is then cleaned by the *permanent* employees. At the same time, I also know departments where almost all of the _everyday_ that makes government function (letters, presentations, briefs) are purely done by consultants or where consultants have been able to successfully move the needle against inertia. If they were not there, things would be different. A good management consultant uses their positioning to listen to existing veterans and voice their ideas packaged in palatable presentations.
Root of the problem I think is that government hiring has been a quagmire. The government gets specialist talent in a myriad of ways - most of them precarious. During the time I've been here, I've been subjected to and have experimented with different methods of hiring, each with their own flaws and levels of precarity. Enough attention over the years has been spent on reforming the administrative services, but I think people need to revisit government hiring, progression and retention in positions other than the coveted ones. Eliminating the precarity in hiring contractual positions will also hopefully reduce the power dynamics and make organisations more cohesive. Now, the tension is often palpable. Consultants/Contractual employees are either from such a privileged background that they have an appetite for precarity which also limits diversity. On the other hand, people without the privilege will always be worried about their jobs, thereby censoring the stands they can take for fear of not getting extensions.
Such a divided organization cannot function optimally.
Yamini's article creates a distinction too between the permanent employees and everyone else as 'consultants'. Is the state only made up of permanent employees though? What makes you eligible to be called as an employee of the state? While I do think there are forms of 'consultants' that operate in perverse incentives, but as we saw above, there is much more to it than a forced dichotomy between permanent and non-permanents. Pick any mid-size government department and you'll find people from all different kinds of hiring mechanisms sitting together and working on a supposed common goal and often doing similar work. From the naked eye, you’ll not be able to spot differences (except for chairs with towels). But look closer, you’ll find tensions, anxieties and divisions and any administrative or organizational reform that doesn't address this divide holistically will leave much off the table.
Thanks for reading #sarkari! Subscribe for notings on technology, public policy, data and working in the Indian government