The new government of Manmohan Singh has been making all the right noises since its formation on May 22. President Pratibha Patils address to Parliament has left nobody in doubt that Manmohan Singh in his second term as prime minister is keen on a purposeful action plan and quick results.
The focus is on improving governance and implementing reforms to achieve inclusive growth.
Industry leaders are yet to meet a minister in the new Manmohan Singh government who does not share the vision outlined by the President in her speech last week. Every minister is talking about speeding up reforms and ways to improve governance.
Yes, the Left is off the ministers' back in the new government, but there is no dilution in the new governments programmes for the poor. An equally interesting change is that the Left within the Congress now seems to have a considerably reduced influence on the government.
Thus, reforms in oil pricing are back on the agenda. Foreign investment in higher education and private sector proposals to set up universities are under consideration. The government will reintroduce in Parliament the legislative bill on land acquisition for special economic zones and rehabilitation of displaced people.
A higher foreign investment ceiling for insurance ventures and pension sector reforms are also on the cards. Finally, the private sectors involvement in defence production is likely to get a fillip with the revival of the Raksha Udyog Ratna scheme that the last government had put on hold following objections from the Left.
Civil servants, who could not move on any of these reforms agenda in the last few years, will welcome this change. However, what they may be slightly confused about is the absence of change in the way the new government is filling important secretary-level positions.
A fixed tenure for a minimum of two years for important secretary-level positions is a good idea. Thus, it makes sense to mandate a minimum tenure of two years for the posts of the cabinet secretary, the home secretary and the foreign secretary.
In fact, the new government could extend the two-year formula to cover some more important ministries. In what way are the ministries of finance, commerce or human resources development less important than the ministries of home and external affairs?
Another question bothering many civil servants is the desirability of giving extensions to those officers who have already completed their fixed tenure. The new government has extended the tenure of the current cabinet secretary by another year. The current principal secretary to the prime minister also has received an extension until further orders.
These extensions result in stagnation for senior officers down the line. Worse, an entire batch of IAS officers, belonging to 1972, has now lost the opportunity to be considered for the top job in civil service.
All of them will have retired by the time the extended one-year tenure of the cabinet secretary comes to an end. G K Pillai, who has now become the home secretary with a two-year tenure, will still be around. But making him the cabinet secretary in June 2010 will mean sacrificing the prospects of the 1973 IAS batch.
The new government's preference for extensions will have two other adverse implications. With an extension becoming a possibility, civil servants approaching retirement often will be inclined to curry favour with the political establishment.
Officers will often avoid taking decisions that are correct but which the political masters may not like, in the hope that such behaviour will brighten their chances of an extension.
Secondly, officers who lose the opportunity of vying for the top job or for a secretarial stint in a more important ministry may lose motivation and become a burden on the system for the remaining months in their service before retirement.
In his first stint as prime minister, Manmohan Singh had sent out a signal to the civil service that his government was opposed to granting extensions to retiring government officers.
Initially, the government followed that principle. Now in his second stint as prime minister, he seems to have discarded that principle. Civil servants, barring a few who benefitted from these extensions, are not happy about this.
Doing away with extensions may well be the starting point for the reforms in civil services which the Manmohan Singh government has been talking about for the last few years.