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What does an IAS officer bring to the table that regular mortals can’t?

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We now have a system where a potato expert is looking after defence, a veterinary doctor is supervising engineers, and a history graduate is dictating the health policy.

The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has finally come up with an advertisement for lateral entry of ‘talented and motivated Indian nationals’ to join the government at the level of joint secretary.

Although it is an initial offering of only 10 positions in the areas of financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, shipping, civil aviation, among others, I believe that this a major reform in the HR policy of the central government.

Normally, it takes a minimum of 16 years for a member of the IAS to be empanelled as a joint secretary, and more number of years for officers from other central and allied services. Under the new lateral entry system, besides in-service officers and officers from PSUs, ‘individuals working at comparable levels in private sector companies, consultancy organisations, international/ multinational organisations with a minimum of 15-year experience’ are eligible to apply. The duration of contract is three years, further extendable to five years.

It was in 2005 when the Second Administrative Reforms Commission proposed the lateral entry of professionals through an ‘institutionalised transparent process’, but there was massive internal resistance to this proposal from the services, mainly the IAS.

The main objection raised by the premier IAS, which mostly occupies these positions, has been that such a move will compromise the decision-making at the highest level by opening the back door to less qualified but politically connected individuals. There has also been a hue and cry that the career civil servants, who have entered the system through a very competitive process, will be demoralised because their promotion prospects to these joint secretary (JS) levels will be adversely affected.

But then, at the same time, there has been a serious debate in the last few years over the effectiveness of a generalist-based delivery system vis-à-vis the challenges of a technology age we live in. It has often been said that an apparatus of 1947 vintage might not serve the needs of the world’s third largest economy in 2018. Other services like the IPS/IFoS/IRS have often shown resentment against the pre-eminence of the IAS. There is a full-fledged civil (services) war going on between various services because there are too many people chasing too few positions at the top.

Lateral entry system, therefore, is a disruption in the classical scheme of things. It is an incursion into the forbidden IAS territory. The apprehension that it might actually make the race to top more difficult for IAS officers is also not unfounded. There is certainly a risk that due process might not be followed and ill-qualified, political appointees will land up in senior positions of the government and hurt public interest. But the best part is that all of that can be fixed.

But this reform is unlike the recently proposed changes in foundation course of the IAS because the mandate of the UPSC at the entry level was being undermined in that case. For induction to service, a level-playing field is provided by the rigorous three-stage civil services examination and any alteration to that time-tested system would make it amenable to political interference. Experience and domain expertise have no points at this level and thus the UPSC pattern suits this stage the best although one would wish that there is more focus on economics and public administration in the civil services examination.

However at the JS level, the type of skill set required is totally different for different departments. At this level, the premium is on domain expertise and professional experience. Senior executives can’t be thus subjected to standardised testing like a written examination, and an institutionalised mechanism of selection committees with independent members can overcome the selection biases to a large extent – something that is being done for the appointment of vice chancellors, chairpersons of PSU and banks, directors of research institutions. Although, it would be best to entrust the selection process to the UPSC so that the questions related to due process are put to rest once for all.

The question is: what does an IAS officer bring to the table that a professional lateral entrant can’t? Take my example. I am a medical sciences graduate who qualified for the civil services examination with public administration and Urdu literature, got a hands-on training at the LBSNAA and went on to supervise agriculture, rural development, revenue administration as a district collector, and headed school education and energy sector of the state in the last eight years of my service. It is obvious that only an IAS officer can dare to dabble in so many subjects without having a formal educational background in any of these. When we interact with our counterparts from the developed economies, they find it hard to believe that one person can be an expert in so many subjects. But here in our case, we believe that this is the best system to continue with.

The structure of the UPSC examination is such that people enter the IAS with a variety of educational backgrounds, and end up in a system where a potato expert is looking after defence, a veterinary doctor is supervising engineers, a history graduate is dictating the health policy and so on. The scheme of transfers and postings is such that there is no match between the expertise of an officer and the post she is expected to hold. With more than 68 per cent of the IAS officers getting a tenure of less than 18 months, the question of functional specialisation also doesn’t arise. Before the officer understands a new department, he is asked to move.

By the time an IAS officer reaches the critical policy level positions, he has flirted with many departments but settled with none. What the senior IAS officer at the most does is that he acts as an interpreter between a marginalised technocrat and the semi-literate politician. Without core subject-matter knowledge, he usually speaks out of his ‘experience’, mainly his experience as a district collector, looks at the rule book, and dresses up the departmental proposals to make them palatable for the equally clueless political boss. No doubt there are honourable exceptions where IAS officers, lucky generals, get posted to their departments of expertise, but that is not very often.

It is in this context that these domain experts could come in as rescue pilots to salvage a system that is ridden with mediocrity. This will force all other services to specialise. The department-hopping will stop, and officers will prefer to build their expertise in one or two sectors where they are best suited. A spirit of competition will also emerge. The complacency that sets in after we qualify the civil service exam and then go up the ladder on autopilot mode will end. People will take policy studies more seriously and the standard of in-service training will improve.

That there might also be certain people who didn’t qualify the IAS in their youth but will finally get to serve in the government, and might even boss over the IAS officers could just be one of the less important but interesting spin-offs of this reform. But more importantly, it will break the bureaucratic monopoly over the governance system and fresh ideas will come in. There might be positive tension between the career officers and laterals, which can ultimately create newer delivery pathways.

The government must go ahead with the reform and bring in the best minds from across the world by following an institutionalised and transparent method of selection. Also, lateral exit system must be added to it so that career civil servants also get to move out for a while, do something different, and then come back with rich expertise at a higher position. And as a colleague of mine says, it will add one more window to the system and enhance the ventilation.

The author is Edward S. Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and an IAS Officer from J&K Cadre.

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  1. Just a One simple question that i have, might people think it is a stupid question.

    What a person of 35 years of age can do
    (after investing 5 years in regress preparation of UPSC, shutting him out from the world, sitting at the corner of his room and reading books. Then after selection 2 years of training) as in position of IAS that is private person with 10 years of corporate experience ( wherein he knows the negotiation, management, technology, team building, innovation, transformation, client dealing, stakeholder communication, Analytics and many more soft skills) CANT DO.

    i have seen people how they suffer in preparation.

    By the way this comment is dedicated to my friend Akash who passed way in depression coz he didnt get through the exam after 5 years of preparation and 2 failed artempt.

  2. If lateral entry is so promising, why government got the IPS lateral entry scheme scrapped by filing affidavit against it in Supreme Court.

  3. Very good discussions. Being a officer of IES, and having worked for 40 years in certain sensitive posts including per. Secy to a minister, I think the rot lies in the lack of trasparent and OK objective yardsticks to place an officer on the basis of aptitude and analytical ability. Merit should bring all services at par. There has to b even competition among all services then only the brazen arrogance of one service and its monopolisation of key posts in every dept. will melt away and true talent for national service will emrge. all officers who come through UPSC trials have specific academic capabilities. Administrative knowledge has to b properly blended with that to derive optimum benefit from civil sevices. So comp Admn reforms not this lateral entry alone can take us anywhere. Rather it will exacerbate the current atmosphere. Services reforms first. Only then the lateral entry can be blended with the mainstream to optimise results.

  4. Being an IAS officer, I completely disagree. ThecIAS officer brings ti the table a broad overvirw of the policy environment, implications for all stakeholders of proposed decisions and a rigor to decision making informed by the canons of public accountability, transparency, fairness and rule of law. It is therefore necessary to get rid of her/ him if we need to have persoality base decision- making. Nay-sayers and go- slow persons are as important as yes-men in Government.

  5. I am a retired IAS officer. First problem is that there is no political consensus about the goals before the nation or the way you want to achieve those goals. If the nation is not clear about the goals, there will be no clarity about the type of officers you want to man the higher echelons of the policy making apparatus. You make confused, purposeless, unfocused selection of IAS officers for higher jobs. Probably this cannot be helped in the present state of our polity.
    Second problem is part of our national character. We have no firm resolve to punish the incompetent, corrupt, or insensitive officers. Let alone punish, we don’t even want to deny them promotion. No officer wants to do an honest evaluation of his subordinate for fear of annoying him and earning a bad name for himself. Every subordinate officer finally turns out to be outstanding and later deemed to be capable of holding highest positions. This situation can be remedied by innovative interventions, but nothing has been done so far.
    Third is the practice of short tenures at the top. Officers work at the top at the fag end of their career for two to three years when they are more concerned about their retired life. They play safe.
    Bringing ten joint secretaries from the private sector is a non-issue. They also will join the same circus.

  6. Administrative services,latral entry and expertise are ok at thair place,Many of the times im scared how the well educated officer can percive his concepts which are always rational to semilitrate,illitrate ministers,law maker.It’s better they have some qualification for thair department they are adorning or entrance test for the same.

  7. Abolish the IAS and other Indian services and hire experts and specialists. Most of them are glorified clerks (only few exceptions) with no deep vision or motivation to change the things. Maintaining the status quo is their primary job- ofcourse they will resist lateral entry. Further, getting selected through one tough exam doesnt make them smart for life ……..

    Indians suffer from feudal mindset that prohibits them to take decision for overall good of the society.

  8. Yes and no both are my answers.
    However I met and understood a couple of questions of IAS people of both direct and conferred.
    I understood these things.
    1. They talk big and if you ask a typical question of decisions made by them they try to get rid of you!
    2. They boast off many things and try to show of what all they read and heard or seen!
    3. They won’t sign individual cases with a fear that they all are fake so it delays a long to get signed a file though it is not genuine and and fine. It is a afar factor.They depend on a few fellows to take decisions most of the times.
    4. One good thing about them is they try to do differently to catch media attention though they may fail sometimes. They fail because they take additional charges of areas where they rarely go earlier for example in charge VC of a umiversityetc etc. There they depend on one or two people to listen to!
    5.l suggest 45 years should be the retirement age so that corruption does not happen arise due to settled experience!

  9. Good proposal but bound to fail because the all powerful IAS will not let these outsiders function well.

  10. I am an IAS officer who served in the IAS for around 39 years and did a variety of jobs as a generalist. It is not generalist or specialist that is important. It is the dedication and commitment and empathy that you bring to the post that is important. As Secretary Health in Kerala for 3 years I learnt a lot about the medical scenario and medical administration which proved useful in my work not only there but also when I became JS (North East) in the Ministry of Home Affairs. I read up not only the old files on the North East but also, read over 68 books on the Naga people and their history and culture which enabled me to understand and empathise with the people. So also on Manipur and the Bodo’s.
    so please don’t ever ask what we bring to the table. It is a unique blend of experience and knowledge unmatched in my experience around the world. What is needed is to ensure that this is systematically tapped into and utilised. I am all for lateral entry but let all be allowed to compete including Director/DS level officers from all services. After all, at the end we all want a better deal for the citizens of India especially those disadvantaged and oppressed.

  11. The move seems a sort of melange where adhoc selection would let stooges of political system to sneak inside the steel frame which as such has already been worn out to quite an extent by the later . It’s good suggestion that such deemed domain experts shall go through gruelling exam under the aegies of UPSC . At the outset it seems another move like blowing out collegium system .
    Much has been said about maintaining status quo in service allocation at entry level which otherwise would give rise to young elite officers singing paeans of the ruling party

  12. Professional competence should be the defining attribute for senior accountable and responsible assignments. Our system based on assured progression for a selected lot has failed to deliver. Hence. The initiative for lateral absorption of subject matter experts. Both educated and experienced in the concerned domain needs to be given a fair chance.

  13. I endorse the view with a suggestion that intake to civil service be made at the 10 plus 2 stage and selected candidates be trained in various fields of administration with specialisation for 3 years n be given degree in civil adm with a bond to serve the govt. for 5 years or more.

  14. A very appreciated move by the government and very well written by the author . This will truly make some difference. I am very happy to read the news.

  15. I welcome the move except with the caveat which has been expressed by many people through different channels.
    My concern is as follows:
    (i) The question of developing subject expertise doesn’t arise at least in generalistic services likeIAS etc. since there are too many vested interests operating at transfer, deployment for training in core sectors, foreign deputation & posting etc.
    (ii) Some people do get posted in a particular sector for long enough period that they can actually acquire expertise. But such people go to those sectors for personal gain and not to give it back to system.
    (iii) One might bring information, domain expertise etc. through lateral entry but how does one ensure that he brings the guts and courage to put it on paper and also express it in presence of everyone including political executive. I have my serious doubts on this having dealt with a plethora of domain experts. The so called domain experts in” Multinational Consultancy Firms “ take it from subordinate staff, cut-paste using google to prepare a report. How can one think that they can prepare a policy paper? and finally
    (iv) How to ensure that public interest supersede the advocacy angle in such prepared policy papers?
    A thorough professional Doctor doesn’t have courage to give a free and unbiased autopsy report, an Engineer doesn’t have courage to give a fair cost estimate etc.
    I have seen some advertisement for post by GOI in recent past and it looks as if all those are customised.
    Absolutely it is my personal opinion.

  16. A welcome move. Complacency on career progression, a ridiculous conceit of being a know-all, a tendency to be at the top everywhere without any specialisations in any field are usually what most of these officers bring to the table, with very few exceptions.

  17. In the corporate world, after about intitial seven years, how many remain working in the specialised area which they studied? To think that IAS Officers stop learning and specialising after appointment can be thought by novices Only. The first hand interaction with the public of all types – English speaking viz experts and vernaculars viz a general man- makes IAS Officers learn profoundly the technological specifics as well as top level general principles. Leave this bogey of outside people bringing talent to table and just look at the mess created by so called specialists in implementation of whichever scheme they were in – Aadhar, Economy, Defence etc. And yes, I am a specialist cadre officer.

  18. I don’t see any reason against the move. Good a beginning is made. Test the water and if found positive make it more acceptable.

  19. The author says it all – no functional specialisation, no domain expertise, no experience but mediocrity, complacency and bureaucratic monopoly.

    “It is obvious that only an IAS officer can dare to dabble in so many subjects without having a formal educational background in any of these”. Of course true, as they cannot be held accountable and responsible for whatever they do or do not do.

    Yet, they are all that we have. And nobody dares touch the exalted IAS. The reason behind India moving nowhere.

    What is going to happen with 10 positions, that too people coming in from rotten PSUs?

    A token incrementalism. And the regular life continues of the inept, inefficient and a self-centred IAS lobby.

  20. Yes monopoly of ias officers will end, and will make them sober and dutiful so better administration will follow.

  21. All this is only tinkering.I have been suggesting a unified Service with specialisation.The details are available in a book,”TheIAS:Experiences and Perceptions”compiled by M.G.Balasubramanian,IAS(R):East West Books (Madras)Pvt Ltd. for TN Retired IAS Officer’s Association.Requires a lot of guts to implement .

  22. Just take the case of Major Gogoi tying one of the militants to the jeep to rescue some government officials. I am sure such ‘OUT OF THE BOX’ ideas, that too, almost instantaneous, would never have come from the minds of any IAS guy!

  23. Well narrated and all pros and cons have been brought out beautifully. We will be needing people with domain knowledge and experience in critical sectors. We have to move on to catch up with 21st century. After all Mr. Rajan was brought in as RBI Governor to balance internal revenue discipline and foreign trade balances. This type of experimentation is good and will yield results in policy framing.

  24. Pl add Armed forces short service commission officers into the ambit of lateral entry scheme.

  25. Sir, you yourself came in with Urdu literature as optional.
    So where do we fit you or are you tendering your resignation ?

  26. Good move
    But cant domain specialists be put through gruelling exams like their civil service guys?
    It will prevent IAS IPS from becoming snooty

  27. shah faesal ji please bell the cat ie those who brought this proposal many officers wants to works in corporate and other sectors through a reverse lateral entry system . will also government release objective criteria and full selection process to public view and to ensure that the new recruit is not a stooge of cia, kgb, Mi and chinese and mosad agency.

  28. Men like Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Vijay Kelkar brought great value to public administration. Their specialised knowledge was required for management of the economy, and they delivered. In theory, lateral entry is a good idea. In practice, we might end up with more sophisticated, erudite versions of Pahalaj Nihalani and Gajendra Chauhan. This is not said facetiously. One reason the collegium system is generating so much friction is because it is insulating appointments to the higher judiciary from the wishes and desires of the executive. 2. To answer the question posed at the head of the column, If nothing else, an IAS officer brings to the table the fruit of a rigorous and tamper proof selection process. There was a time when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru could personally select officers for the IFS, without his choice being questioned. That time has passed into history.

  29. I am glad that someone is taking the bull by the horn, its time we stopped flogging the dead horse.

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