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.