-Rajesh K. Jha
If IAS is the steel frame, Why can’t IIS be imagined to serve as the Nervous System?
Two incidents stand out vividly in my memory whenever I think about my early days in the Indian Information Service. The first incident relates to the period when I was on training. One component of our training required us to be ‘attached’ to a department of our parent ministry i.e. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. I was attached to the PMO wing within the Presss Information Bureau (PIB). The PMO unit of PIB was considered a very important section and the person managing that wing enjoyed a special authority and position. Being absolute beginners to the service, no department actually entrusted work to us and so was the case here. One evening, having been given no work for the entire day, I went to the boss of the section to seek his permission to go back early. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows with some disdain and said, ‘No, I have got some work for you’. Though a little disappointed at the denial of permission, I also felt somewhat happy that after long last there was something to do for me. He bent down sitting on his chair, dipped his hand in the wastepaper basket kept underneath his desk and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. Straightening the paper, he pushed it towards me and said, ‘go, make a press-release out of it’. Quickly.
A year or so later after this incident, I took up my first posting. I, along-with another of my batch mate joined an office which was housed in a building on Curzon road in Delhi. I came to know subsequently that this building was used as a stable to house the horses during the British period. We were given a large hallway to share as our office. The longish room or hallway had two desks placed at each end. On my side of the room, there was a special facility- a three seater sofa which incidentally had three legs too. A pile of old files served as the fourth leg. This sofa served as my favourite resting place during the lunch time. Very often, two of us would go to the nearby India Gate to enjoy its lush lawns and munch peanuts. My friend would joke, almost every day, ‘Jhajee, we set out to become collectors, ended up being Inspectors. How do you feel…’ And we would have a hearty laugh. Actually our designation there was ‘Inspector of Exhibitions’. After some time my friend moved out of the service and joined a secretive organisation of the government. I last heard he is posted abroad, happy and contended doing the job.
These incidents are both symbolic and symptomatic of what bothers those who join the Indian Information Service, a prestigious Group- A service of the government of India. It’s true that things have changed much but perhaps, as goes the adage, the more things change, the more they remain the same! We no longer make press-releases on paper and the designation of the ‘Inspector of Exhibitions’ has been abolished, replaced by a much fancier name of ‘Deputy Director-Communication’ or something. But there has hardly been any substantive change in the nature of work that IIS officers are supposed to do even now. In place of paper, perhaps we struggle to make a press release for our client ministries based on secondary sources which may otherwise also be available in the public domain to journalists and media persons. Our offices have certainly become swankier in most of the places but we are still lacking substantial work justifying our position and experience as civil servants. Quite rightly, a senior colleague of the service often quotes, IIS is the service in search of work.
All Bass and No Treble?
To be fair, I don’t mean to say that it is all bass and no treble so far as IIS is concerned. Lest I sound pessimistic and paint a grim and dark picture of the service, I hasten to add that IIS has its share of glory and achievement. The service has no dearth of talent joining its ranks from some of the best institutions of the country. You are sure to bump into a bright IIM pass out or an IIT graduate in the corridors of our offices. Meeting a doctor from a top medical college or another bright and young, officer from a small town, who qualified for the service despite odds. The service can boast of officers attaining great levels of professional achievement within the civil services fraternity. However, there is something pervasive in the service. A feeling of disappointment with our lot, lack of pride in our jobs, a perceived sense of denial and absence of opportunities seem to be the overriding sentiment within the service. Somehow, the ‘smell of the service’ is not attractive. What afflicts it?
Broadly speaking, the domain of activities assigned to the IIS officers extends into two main areas. The service derives its identity from activities which can be put under the rubric of information and publicity activities of the government. Organisations like Press Information Bureau and Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) and Directorate of Field Publicity (DFP) are its major components. However, there is another set of organisations within the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting which is not directly involved with publicity related activities. These organisations like Directorate of Film Festival, FTII, RNI, IIMC, National Film Archives of India etc. fall within the broad professional realm of communication and media landscape. These organisation are intended to fulfil specific tasks. There is a third category of organisation which can be called Trishanku organisations not knowing whether they are publicity organisations or professional task oriented organisations. Publications Division and now AIR and DD belong to this category.
It would be instructive to note that IIS officers working in the second category of institutions such as DFF, FTII, NFAI etc. have generally been recognised as doing a commendable work comparable to any other similarly placed organisation. They also enjoy a high level of professional satisfaction for their work and attract far less criticism for failing to fulfil their assigned mandate. In the same category, IIS officers who go out and work in other central and state government departments and autonomous bodies like Election Commission have distinguished themselves professionally and are recognised widely for their contribution. However the IIS officers seem to lose their sharpness and effectiveness when it comes to managing the information and publicity set up of the government. Clearly, this is no reflection on the capabilities of IIS officers who prove their mettle wherever there is an opportunity along with institutional support for them. It is obvious that the malaise lies not in the capability of the people running the information and publicity set up of the government but in the very structure of the organisation. But it would be wrong to completely absolve the IIS officers of the responsibility for this malaise. There is something within us which creates this loss of identity and perpetual state of depressiveness.
Split Personality or Auto Immune Disorder?
A typical entrant to the IIS is often confronted with this dilemma early on in his career- Are we journalists or officers? Does our job require us to ‘manage’ government information set up or are we there to carry out the message? Unfortunately, this dilemma is never resolved even if we move up the ladder in the bureaucratic hierarchy. Even while we aspire to be treated like ‘officers’ as other members of civil services fraternity, our jobs and activities leave little possibility for it. The media fraternity sees the IIS officers as part of the bureaucracy, albeit without its trappings and powers while the bureaucracy within the government treats us like journalists, albeit without much voice or authority to influence the political class. This is the root of dilemma, the cause of split personality disorder that an IIS officer is faced with. Perhaps one reason for this lies in the fact that the Central Information Service, the precursor to IIS, was conceptualised in a manner that protected it from the vagaries of bureaucratic hierarchy and officialdom to allow it direct access to the political class. It was assumed to protect its freedom and allow it to provide fearless and unfettered advice within a loosely centralised set up so far as communication activities of the government was concerned. This freedom, immunity from the bureaucratic hierarchy seems to have become a problem in itself. The classic case of the immune turning against itself often leading to intractable diseases in the body. The IIS seems to be afflicted with both-the split personality disorder and the auto-immune syndrome.
A recognition of the malaise that affects IIS is the first step towards finding possible pathways for evolving a framework of liberation from the crisis in which the service finds itself. There is a need to recognise that the context of information and communication has undergone a complete change since the time it became the domain of this service. A deeper engagement with this process of change in the way information is being produced, distributed and consumed would help in clarifying our possible leadership role as personnel dealing with this sector.
Scarcity to Overload
Once we are somewhat reconciled and settled with our roles as IIS officers in the government set up, we identify most closely as ‘information disseminators’. Indeed, dissemination is the most frequently heard word within the IIS community. Sadly, the very idea of ‘dissemination’ or taking the information to the people through media has become outdated. We have moved from a time of information scarcity to the age of information overload. This has a deep implication for our roles within the government communication set up. A few decades back when information was scarce, IIS served as a key link between the government and media as also between government and the people at large.
Now, with the changing technological and socio-political context, when information becomes easily available, the discourse of information dissemination is losing its value and meaning. Most of the information a media organisation needs is available on the website, press releases can be pushed instantaneously to as many people as we want using social media and several other channels. It does not require any great skill or special ability to achieve this. It would be foolish for us to believe that undertaking the work of ‘information dissemination’ by using modern communication tools like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other innumerable social media channels or to discover ‘caller tune’ to be a great communication device or organising a Talkathon would add a value that is unique to our service, experience and expertise. We need to recognise that the act of ‘information dissemination’ can’t be our USP, it can’t give us a sense of value and importance. It is far too mundane a job to require people of the calibre of IIS officers. We need to look beyond, think of the new horizons to justify ourselves and utilise our capabilities.
Indeed in the short run within the existing structures of the service, data explosion itself offers new opportunities of working. Our expertise could be put to good use by trying to impart sense and give direction to the constant barrage of information. In the hurried world of journalism, this interpretive and analytical work on data and information flow could find many takers. From the plain-Jane information to enriched data, value added communication with analytical content could be one possible area where IIS officers could possibly make use of their ability and expertise within the existing government communication set up.
Zen Art of Compassionate Listening
With the emergence of Social Media as a vital communication tool, the government is now putting a special emphasis on this field. Lower cost and instantaneous and wide reach make it an extremely attractive option as a communication tool. However, tweeting or putting up pictures, audio-video and text on the Facebook etc. do not require any exclusive capabilities. Youngsters can be seen doing it effortlessly and often very effectively. With a little training and some guidance, it is easy to have an efficient and effective social media team for government communication. Apparently, it is a wastage to have the highly qualified and able IIS officers sending out tweets or worse, retweeting for public. However, the social media strategy of the government seems to be so totally self-obsessed that it hardly pays attention to what people are saying on the social media networks.
In the emerging techno space, very often it is of great importance to pay attention to what people are saying. We need to listen more than talk. I am aware that the government has a full-fledged monitoring set up about which serious concern has been raised so far as the question of individual privacy is concerned. Rather than monitoring in the surveillance sense of the word, we must develop the ability to catch the reverberations beneath the ground, connect to the murmurs and undercurrent of sentiments and reactions which important socio economic events, political decisions, statements of the leaders are generating. This could provide immense, invaluable input for course correction, preventive action and even effective implementation of a number of communication initiatives of the government. It is understood that government has taken some steps in this direction but these remain mostly unimplemented or unfocussed on the ground. So, in the Zen tradition, as communication experts for the government, we must practice compassionate listening because this has the capacity to liberate people from suffering.
The Hanuman Moment
The great and powerful Hanuman was afflicted by a curse that he will not realise his strength unless reminded by someone. Once reminded, Hanuman was able to cross the sea, expand or shrink his body at will and do incredible things. This was the Hanuman moment in his life. We all have our Hanuman moments waiting to be discovered. The IIS also needs to discover its Hanuman moment to realise its inherent strength and capability. This realisation will have to dawn collectively on the members of the IIS fraternity. It is important to dream big and take a giant leap of faith.
We often forget that the act of communication for the government is essentially an act of creating legitimacy. In the absence of an effective communication strategy, no policy decision of the government could get legitimised in the public eye. Part of this legitimisation exercise is done by the political class but a very important segment remains to be implemented by the information-communication set up of the government. The process of creating legitimacy for the system has two dimensions. Firstly, it involves weaving the initiatives into a moral story to make it sound credible and trustworthy. Secondly, the story has to be scaled up to reach the intended audience or beneficiary group. A great story makes no sense if it is limited to a very small section of society. Our job is to make it a part of the wider narrative.
Surely, it’s a challenging job in the face of competing forces operating at the societal and political level. To speak of this exercise simply as information dissemination or publicity and advertising campaign robs it of its spirit and true import. Indeed, the entire process has to begin at the point when the policy is being conceptualised. Communication strategy is an integral, fundamental and inalienable part of any policy initiative that is likely to impact society. This necessitates the presence of communication experts at all levels of policy making, especially at the top and also at the levels involved in its implementation. Right from the stage of conceptualisation to articulation and finally implementation of the communication strategy is part of the legitimisation exercise. Communication exercise is the lubricant that smoothens the relationship between the government and the people, between government and media and also between various wings and arms of the government. This is the domain of IIS.
A critical part of this process is the carrying of signals between the government and the people and vice versa. Quite often it is done with the help of media, sometimes on its own. In that sense, the organisational structure of information and communication set up can be likened to the nervous system of the body. The nervous system carries all the essential information between different organs of the body to make it an integrated whole. Just as smooth flow of information is crucial for the proper functioning of body, a well-oiled information and communication machinery is a must to avoid conflict and create an atmosphere of larger acceptance of government policy initiatives. A non-functional nervous system turns an individual into a zombie, a mal-functioning information communication set up could turn government into a graveyard of failed policy initiatives or arena of conflict between multiple stakeholders. Indeed if IAS is seen as the steel frame, IIS could be seen as the nervous system of the governance structure.
Reality Check and Introspection
The vision of the future and its contrast with the present reality must force us to introspect. Where did we falter? What has been our weakness that has led to this state of affairs within the community of IIS? There could be many possible answers to this question. Many of us tend to believe that Group B officers of IIS are to blame for our reduced avenues of promotion, in service growth and other maladies that afflict us. Clearly, the other side also harbours the same feeling. I find no merit in this line of thinking. Indeed both of the Group A and Group B people are victims of lack of vision so far as this service is concerned. Unless all of us realise that the root cause of the problem lies in our inability to change with the times and redefine our roles, the problem will persist and people will continue to suffer loss of self respect apart from other more tangible damages. We must stop barking at our own shadows or snapping at phantoms of imagination.
We often forget the crucial fact that a big reason of the decline of IIS has been our inability to evolve strong institutions which would carry forward the vision of a well established civil service. Once strong institutions are in place, they evolve and acquire their own dynamics to change with the times and take on new roles. Institutions are built on the basis of certain values which are sought to be upheld by those who provide leadership to these institutions. The process of upholding these values often comes at great personal cost but that is the core of leadership after all. As civil servants it is indeed the duty of the people holding positions of authority to provide vision and leadership. They are also required to uphold institutional values and not wilt or wither before the powers that be. Assertion of these values create an aura of value and importance around institutions.
We would do well to remember that before T.N.Seshan, the Election Commission was also seen as a docile and pliant body which lacked any real teeth and power. It was the assertion of T.N.Seshan that gifted it with the prestige and acceptance that has proved tremendously valuable to the society at large by upholding the dignity and honour of political process in India. Similarly, institutions like Doordarshan, All India Radio and many others for which IIS officers provide leadership are vital in protecting the democratic and pluralistic ethos of the country if they remain firm on their constitutional mandate.
Strengthening an institution and imbuing it with vital force is a long and painful process. It demands our blood and sweat. Standing for values and remaining committed to great ideals of public good in the best tradition of civil services could be tortuous. We would do well to remember that each time a campaign is awarded to a non-deserving agency on the recommendation of the political powers, each time a sub-standard text is published in Yojana, each time DD/AIR deviate from the principles of fairness, balance and objectivity – we not only damage our own mandate as civil servants but also create a non-performing asset which hangs like an albatross around our neck. It weakens us collectively by diminishing us morally. Our individual compromises, timidity and inefficiency injects a slow acting poison in to the blood stream of IIS as a professional civil service. Our individual acts of omission and commission today leads to dejection and frustration tomorrow in an IIT graduate, IIM pass-out or a bright idealistic boy coming from a government college in Jaunpur with dreams of serving the nation and changing its destiny by opting for IIS.
The challenges are many and they are daunting. There are people organising conferences within earshot of our workplace in Delhi and proclaiming that the people who opt for the IIS have the lowest rank in the civil services, that they are incompetent, lack qualification and still capture the top posts in the service. They may also have backing of powerful people. The wolf may be howling not in the dark but in broad daylight. We must put our act together now before it is too late.
It is high time we start imagining a new future. It is the time to dream a new reality to which we strive collectively for we know that the power of a shared dream is unfathomable, that all great changes start with a shared dream. Can we sing collectively with John Lennon – you may say I am a dreamer but I am not the only one.
Perhaps this is the only way that we can untangle our wings to conquer the sky and let our dreams blossom once again .