Dr Sunita Khurana was appointed the Director of the Department of Personnel and Training at ISTM in September 2015 – a mere seven months ago, and a position that is even more impressive when you consider that she is one of very few women in top positions within what is perceived as an overtly male-dominated environment.
With no history of family members working in government roles (she is the daughter of a business man and school principal) her background defies those who would like to cite nepotism as the basis of her position and instead would indicate that it is the result of good old-fashioned hard work. She has twin daughters, aged 26, and currently lives in Delhi with her husband.
As she visited the UK for a 5-day training programme with Civil Service College, we spoke with Dr Khurana about the challenges she has faced in her new role, and what she hopes to achieve with ISTM.
"The training programmes are focused around citizen centricity and delivery of services in an effective and efficient manner."
To start with, she is very much enjoying the new role, finding that there is a lot going on in her working environment and even branding it as ‘vibrant’; not a word often used to describe a Public Sector office. “You will find lots of people running around and working very hard, but they are very, very competent. There’s energy getting synergised and any new person who joins will have some ideas also.”
Dr Khurana makes no secret of wanting to harness this high-energy atmosphere and has clear ideas about what is important within her own jurisdiction, hoping to be able to shift the organisational focus to citizen-centric delivery. “This has become very important,” she stresses. “That is the message coming from the administrative department who has control of the institute, which has a department of personnel and training.”
The main message that Dr Khurana is delivering is that all departments should be citizen focused, all of them working for the people. “The training programmes are focused around citizen centricity and delivery of services in an effective and efficient manner. That should become a certainty, so that anyone who joins any department is sensitised towards that.”
"The citizen is important – they need to be catered to."
It is this new mind-set that she hopes to instil that is behind this particular delegations visit to the UK. Dr Khurana and a delegation of 34 other Senior Civil Servants have spent five days learning about Accountability and citizen-centric delivery in the UK Public Sector and Civil Service. “Any particular brief we have given has been to expose [the other delegates] to the concept of the importance of the citizen and of service delivery. We want to change their mind-set. The citizen is important – they need to be catered to.
“We do this work in our institute and this particular portion is about exposal.” But Dr Khurana expects more from her colleagues than to simply be silent observers. “I keep telling people though that whatever ideas are there, when they go back please ensure that you actually use them!”
"Those were very beneficial as they gave us not only the knowledge of how they worked but also the application, adaption and adoption of these theories."
It also seems that the training is having the right effect on the other delegates. “There have been lots of learnings over here [in the UK.]” Dr Khurana assured me. “They have been saying ‘Oh, this needs to be adopted and that needs to be adopted’ when they go back, and whatever they can I’m sure they’re going to do. They are very motivated.”
The study visits were also very useful, demonstrating not just the theory of a citizen-centric organisation, but also the practice. “Those were very beneficial as they gave us not only the knowledge of how they worked but also [helped us to think about] the application, adaption and adoption of these theories.”
She is conscious, though, that there is only so much within her control. “I have a small, little bit in the whole set up [of the governmental system] to change people’s attitudes. But that in itself is very satisfying. The institute can only train the people, but if I’m successful in that, in training their minds and their attitudes, then that means I have achieved my objective.”
"There are parameters of good governance, and women should always be leading those parameters.”
There is the question of women, or lack thereof, in top positions in the Indian Civil Service. “But there aren’t many at a low level either!” Dr Khurana tells me that the split between women and men in the Indian Civil Service is not 50/50, but more like 25/75, with the favour falling to the male category. It varies from department to department of course, and much to my surprise and delight she assured me that you will find more women in a sporting function for example, but as far as the decision making roles go the glass ceiling still seems to be intact.
So is there any advice that Dr Khurana would like to give to women in the Civil Service who are striving for a Director role?
“I think that whole policy making scene may change. The ways that men and women think, and their priorities, are very different. There have been studies that say that if women were in decision making positions then there are certain departments where they would be more likely to go, which are the basic necessities at the moment, such as health and education. Without fulfilling that, at any case, we will be unlikely to be able to move forward and while they are very dedicated I personally would like them to be even more devoted to their work. There are parameters of good governance, and women should always be leading those parameters.”
While she says that there are initiatives in place to help women move up the ladder, you can’t force people. “But if they are there and they are competent…” She trails off, the implication seeming to be that an employee being good at what they do will always trump gender.
She says that the small number of women at top levels isn’t just a result of women being held back though, but also a reflection of the lower numbers of women in the Public Sector in general. “Overall in the government service the number of women is around 15-20%. You can’t just go straight from 15% to 50%, even if some departments suddenly decided to only hire women.”
So while at the moment there seem to be no concrete schemes to help women get to the top, it seems that the Indian Government must first start small and focus on getting women into the system in the first place.
"I have a small, little bit in the whole set up to change people’s attitudes."
This was not Dr Khurana’s first trip to the UK. A twenty four hour stop off in London on the way back from Sweden two decades ago which gave her a quick glimpse at Oxford Street, Madam Tussauds and the sites of Westminster. This time she (half jokily) explained that CSC had kept her so busy she wasn’t able to see much more, though she has managed to find time to appreciate the architecture and the history of the city.
“We’ve managed to see the Museum of Natural History; that was exciting. What I also like is that the UK, London, has a history. There is symmetry to the buildings, the roads are quite small but sometimes you can’t broaden them because the buildings are protected, which is very impressive! There is ancient history here but it’s still very well organised and well run. People are still taking photos of the preserved architecture, which isn’t something that’s very common where I’m from. Even if they have renovated the inside, they have preserved the faced and it looks so beautiful. It’s very fascinating.”