New Delhi: Almost two years after the Narendra Modi government announced its ambitious plan to reform the civil services by bringing in fresh talent through the lateral entry process, the move seems to have lost steam. There has been no such recruitment since eight joint secretary-level appointments in eight ministries last year.
In 2018, the government had said the lateral entry would fulfil the twin purpose of bringing in domain expertise in the civil services and addressing the problem of shortage of IAS officers at the Centre, but it said last year there was no further plans to recruit joint secretaries through this scheme.
Instead, the government said it would be hiring 40 professionals through lateral entry at the level of director.
In a statement to Parliament in July 2019, Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh said on the basis of the recommendations of the NITI Aayog and the sectoral group of secretaries in 2017, “It has been decided, in principle, to appoint outside experts to 40 positions at deputy secretary/director level. However, no final decision has been taken in the matter.”
No progress on further recruitment
More than a year since the statement, however, there is no movement on the proposal, and the UPSC — the body that is supposed to carry out the recruitments — has not been intimated by the government about any further recruitments as of yet.
“The proposal is not off the table, obviously,” an official in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) said. “The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed a lot of plans across the government, so the recruitment could not happen this year. And a reform like lateral entry is bound to take time… But that does not mean that the reform has not taken off.”
However, several skeptics of the move within the civil services see the slow movement on the lateral entry scheme as a vindication of their belief that the bureaucracy cannot be overhauled with the induction of a few professionals.
‘Lateral entry cannot overhaul the civil service’
IAS officers and other stakeholders that ThePrint spoke to said the system was well entrenched and too vast for a few lateral entrants to make a difference.
“A lot of us were alarmed by the move last year, but a lot of us knew that the induction of 10 or 50 professionals through lateral entry cannot alter the functioning of the government or fundamentally change the nature of government functioning,” said a serving IAS officer, who did not wish to be named. “Unless the landscape of functioning changes in the government, it does not matter whether a person occupying the post is an IAS officer, an officer from the allied services (IPS, IRS, etc.) or a lateral entrant.”
One of the eight lateral entrants recruited by the UPSC last year partially agreed. “It is still too early to say, and the experience has been a huge learning, but if I speak for myself, I can say I have gotten more soaked into the system than I have been able to change it,” the entrant said.
“This is not to say that I have not made any contribution but I think it is reasonable that one laterally recruited official in a ministry of hundreds cannot alter the culture,” he added. “While to kick off lateral entry, three years might be a good time, but in terms of affecting change in governance, it could prove to be too short a time.”
‘Purpose not served’
A secretary in one of the ministries, to which eight of the professionals were recruited, said the stated purpose of recruiting lateral entrants, which was to make use of their domain expertise, has not been served at all.
“They have become like any other director or JS signing files,” said the officer, who also requested anonymity. “The other problem is they have very limited areas of expertise. Beyond those, they struggle to contribute in any other areas.”
He added, “It is primarily because you are trying to induct domain expertise into a generalised domain, i.e. administration.”
In order for them to work well, the officer said, there should have been more focus on their training. “These people have no idea about how governance works, they need training in it,” he said. “My suggestion would be that they should be sent to Mussoorie (where the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administration is located) for training for some time after their recruitment to get a hang of things.”
The lateral entrants did undergo training at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) after their recruitment last year. At IIPA, they were taught how to make cabinet notes and on how to work around parliamentary procedures, among others. It was, however, only for a period of two weeks.
Most ambitious recommendations on lateral entry not accepted
While the government’s decision to recruit professionals through lateral entry was touted as a major reform, some of the more ambitious and radical recommendations with regard to lateral entry were put on the backburner by the government.
According to documents accessed by ThePrint, the Group of Secretaries (GoS) on governance, which had first recommended lateral entry at the level of joint secretaries in 2017, had suggested promoting them to the level of additional secretaries or even inducting them into the IAS or other civil services — recommendations that were not immediately accepted by the government.
A document of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), accessed by ThePrint, showed that in February 2017, the GoS had said, “The present shortage is at the level of joint secretary. Therefore, on an annual basis for the next seven years, 15 officers each at the Joint Secretary level could be selected on an annual basis from open market through a written competitive examination as well as personality test/presentation conducted through the UPSC.”
The recommendation of the GoS further added: “Such officers, if considered for extension, could also be considered for appointment up to Additional Secretary level without subjecting them to empanelment for that level.”
“An objective view about their extension should be possible as the feedback on the performance of these officers can be done as the ACR (Annual Confidential Reports)/360 degree evaluation would be available,” it said.
While the government accepted the GoS’ recommendation to recruit professionals laterally, its recommendation to do so through a competitive examination, and to do it each year for the next seven years have not been accepted.
‘Recruiting them directly into IAS’
Yet another recommendation of the GoS, according to the document, was, “If the experiment proves to be successful and the Government is able to get the service of truly competent officers, a scheme could be subsequently devised to facilitate their lateral entry into IAS or other Group A central services wherever the officers have such domain expertise.”
It added, “The modalities of their lateral induction is preferred because they could then be rotated at least three years to a state government to be allotted to them where they could gain field experience, which they could then bring to the position of policy-making levels. In such an eventuality, the feasibility of amending rules could be explored.”
While these recommendations have not been made public until now, sources say there is no indication that they could be accepted. IAS officers who spoke to ThePrint also found the recommendations undoable and arbitrary.
“The recommendations are not doable. The recruitment for the IAS only happens through the UPSC Civil Service Examination. That cannot be circumvented just like that,” said S.K. Sarkar, former DoPT secretary.
On the recommendation to promote lateral entrants as additional secretaries without empanelment, Sarkar said, “That would be discriminatory. Under the Central Staffing Scheme, to be promoted from JS (joint secretary) to AS (additional secretary), one has to be empanelled. You cannot circumvent this process for a select few.”
The secretary quoted above said for lateral entry to succeed, a proper system needs to be established, wherein you say 10 per cent IAS officers would come through this route. “It cannot be arbitrarily done where you have a random number of recruitments done laterally, and then you say promote these officers or make them permanent IAS officers,” he said.
ThePrint contacted a DoPT spokesperson through calls, text messages and email for a comment on what happened to the GoS recommendations, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.