Asian age, May 16, 2019
By Pradeep S Mehta
On April 12, 2019, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) announced nine candidates as lateral entrants to serve as joint secretaries in various ministries of the Government of India. This was a milestone event in the government’s efforts to bring in administrative reforms. Many committees and also the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission had recommended it but there was no momentum. But much more needs to be done and if we want better governance and performance, we need lateral entries at levels both higher and lower than joint secretary levels. This needs to be coupled with exits — weeding out of the deadwood in the system.
Appointing nine joint secretaries from the private and the public sectors was the first significant step by the Narendra Modi government to bring specialists and experts into the government from outside the system. But many may not be aware that many of the joint secretaries’ current positions are held by officers from the IRS, IPS and so forth, who bring in a fresh perspective. This was tolerated by the steel frame because they were also civil servants, and not outsiders. However, appointing people from outside the system has raised the hackles of the entrenched bureaucracy for obvious reasons. One valid fear was that the government would bring people of their choice for these key posts. This is already happening except that choices are restricted to the civil services.
One bureaucrat in Haryana (not Ashok Khemka) alleged hoarsely that the move is an attempt to tear down the very fabric of democracy and that lateral entry can crush the steel frame of India. Likewise, many Opposition leaders termed this move as the government’s attempt to fill the position with people of a similar ideology. Subsequently, in December 2018, to counter such fears, the task was handed over to the UPSC, the country’s central recruiting agency, to make the process politically neutral.
To put it on record, lateral entry is not a brand new move and it has been tried and tested in the past when the government handpicked several experts from outside the steel frame such as Sam Pitroda, Vijay Kelkar, Montek Singh Ahluwalia and several others at the secretary level, or even Nandan Nilekani, who was given the rank of a Cabinet minister. Others included R.V. Shahi, the last lateral entry power secretary, who joined a select group of those who reached the top ranks of bureaucracy from the outside — Lavraj Kumar, Mantosh Sondhi and D.V. Kapoor. The present move of the government differs from the past in its attempt to institutionalise the way of recruiting civil servants parallel to the All India Civil Services Examination.
Not many may know that one major lateral entry experiment was done in 1957. To create a pool of highly qualified managers, 131 candidates were hired in 1959 under the “Industrial Management Pool (IMP)” initiative. They were hired from both the public and the private sectors to provide the bureaucracy the much needed fillip of quality at the senior levels. The scheme, however, did not last beyond one batch, ostensibly due to the opposition of vested interests. However, most of the 131 recruits went on to serve a full term.
Now, 60 years after the botched effort, the government is again seeking to infuse outside talent in the government and make use of their domain expertise. If indeed a level playing field can be created, the move can act as a catalyst to infuse competition in the system and holds the potential to transform the system. The move will also bolster the performance of permanent civil servants when they will face competition. By the way, many existing permanent civil servants are brilliant but many have to suffer incompetent supervisors. They cannot annoy them because of the imperative of getting good appraisal reports without which their promotions can be held back. In the event lateral entry happens in greater numbers, it will challenge the existing automatic promotion system and also create an exit avenue for non-performing babus.
In 2016, an experiment of institutionalising lateral entry at the special secretary level was initiated by the government of Jharkhand. Four individuals for the post of special secretary were recruited. As it stands today, only two of them, who already had enough experience of working with the bureaucracy, have managed to thrive. For the other two subject experts, the biggest challenge was their lack of experience in the functioning of the bureaucracy.
Similar to the Central government’s decision to handover the selection process to the UPSC, in Jharkhand, KPMG was hired, limiting the scope for political intervention. But they did not do the job well, because one of the recruits was a retired state civil servant whose domain knowledge was sound.
In order to keep the process controversy-free, the Central government has fixed the tenure of the joint secretaries for three years. In our opinion, the duration is inadequate to understand the job role and start performing. Moreover, the lack of a provision to extend the services of even the better performers can act as a deterrent for the candidates to invest their intellectual capital. Also, it is not wise to lose someone after imparting all the necessary on-job training. An option to extend their stay by another 5-10 years based on their performance could be considered, when permanent civil servants can work for 30-plus years without the fear of getting fired.
Although no amount of training can bring them at par with the career bureaucrats on administrative issues, a short training to understand the basics of government procedures at any reputed training centre such as Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration could be useful. When bureaucrats with enough administrative experience fall short of their optimum performance due to a lack of subject expertise, it is imprudent to expect that a subject expert will perform without strong knowledge of how government works. A healthy mixture of subject expertise and administrative knowledge is the only way forward.
Developed countries such as the United States, Britain, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand are known to have lateral entrants as a standard practice. Even regular civil servants have to compete for any posting. By making lateral entry a part of the system, the PM has made an important political intervention. It is high time for a reform process by opening up different ministries to more short-term consultants and experts and lateral entry can be the way forward. These nine new joint secretaries will account for less than three per cent of over 340 joint secretaries in the Central government. Reforming the bureaucracy with lateral entry is a welcome move, but lateral exit also needs to be planned and implemented.
Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary general of CUTS International.
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