The debate on expansion of the foreign service is an ongoing one, the popularly held view being that a growth in girth is the road to Nirvana. All the chatter about how small our diplomatic strength is ignores the basic fact that India’s civil service, in general, is small: for instance, a total of around 4500 officers of the Indian Administrative Service serve at the Centre and all the States and Union Territories in the country. In this relative context, it is not a surprise that the Indian Foreign Service is also limited in its numbers.
At the time of formation of the IFS, not all its members were recruited through competitive examination or “direct entry”. In planning for an initial strength of 315 members in 1947, it was recognised by the government that in order to build up the service, it would be necessary at the start to recruit from other services as well as from outside sources. One of the eminent persons recruited to the IFS at the time of inception in 1947, outside the competitive examination, was K.R. Narayanan, who later went on to become President of India.
Through a process of selection based on merit and academic qualifications together with specific domain expertise, the MEA is considering the entry of individuals as consultants who would augment the strength of the Policy Planning and Research (PP&R) Division. The process would be through open advertisement. There are plans on the anvil to enlarge such recruitment in the future and even to embed future inductees in the territorial divisions of the ministry, thus beginning a process of breaking the silos that have essentially made such departments impregnable in the past. The MEA has instituted policy planning “talks” and consultations with 16 countries in order to develop best practices in fostering and outsourcing research and study. Concomitantly, the Indian Council of World Affairs, designated as an institution of national importance by an Act of Parliament in 2001, is also seen as a focal point for pursuing research on behalf of the Ministry with around 20 researchers being identified for this purpose. Expenditure on the policy planning and research activities of the MEA has risen.
Outside inductee numbers rising
Over the last few years, particularly since 2010, the MEA has inducted into its offices at headquarters, deputationists from other central services of government. These are officers of the deputy secretary and director ranks, and their numbers have risen slowly to around 70 at present. Efforts are also underway to reset the ratio of personnel at headquarters to those in missions abroad from around 1:3.5 to 1:2, which should release more persons for work in New Delhi. Younger officers are at the same time being encouraged to interact more systematically and regularly with think tanks and there is recognition of the need to enable researchers in such institutions to have more access to policy-related thinking in the ministry.
Given the prospect of the entry of outside experts into the MEA’s policy planning process, the ministry may find it useful to study the Exchange Agreements, or Intergovernmental Personnel Act under which the United States government permits the “exchange” of people with specialised knowledge to serve a rotation in government. This system allows people from academia or the private sector or state/municipal governments to spend a specified period of time in federal government. This enables the drawing of the best talent from U.S. academia into government.
As a cadre, the IFS has traditionally been resistant to lateral entry, as indeed are the other civil services. A recent article in the Indian Express by an officer in the Prime Minister’s office, Gulzar Natarajan, argued that the mainstream arguments in favour of lateral entry “underestimate the recruitment, functional and operational difficulties associated with lateral entry” and that a generalised system of such entry “runs the risk of degenerating into an uncontrollable ‘spoils’ system.” However, the same writer also conceded that a carefully calibrated expansion in the scope of lateral entry “would be an appropriate strategy to infuse fresh talent into the country’s bureaucratic system.” This would appear to be the approach now being followed in the MEA.
It is also a point to ponder that if more energy and dynamism is sought to be infused into the working of the ministry, then some young officers should be permitted to work outside government – in corporates and nonprofits – for short periods as Natrajan’s article argues, thus enabling important exposure to new ideas and innovative management techniques and providing more energy, talent and dynamism in the functioning of the ministry. Even more importantly, there should be a much more active interchange of officers between the Ministries of External Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs, Finance and Commerce given the critical and interlinked nature of the areas of policy they deal with.
The MEA could also contemplate the possibility of providing for a few of its posts for deputationists to be drawn from state governments as the role of such governments in the execution and determination of foreign policy is becoming more substantive and important. One barrier to this, however, is the fact that the Central Staffing Scheme under which officers from state governments are placed at the Centre does not cover the MEA. A way should, however, be found.
Another idea that can be considered is whether the MEA should consider developing its own think tank, possibly attached to the Foreign Service Institute (which trains new entrants into the IFS) on the lines of what, for example, is seen in the Chinese system. There, the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) is the think tank of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, conducting research and analysis on a wide range of foreign policy issues of ‘strategic importance’. The CIIS hosts seminars and conferences to discuss new global developments and to advance issue-specific studies. It also runs collaborative research projects with both domestic and foreign scholars on issues of shared interest. Its staff includes senior diplomats, area-study specialists and young scholars who have advanced university degrees in international relations or related disciplines. Such an institution in the Indian context can be a clearing house for new ideas, and a locus for incubating new policy approaches. This could also be a platform where retired diplomats of the IFS could mentor research groups on strategic planning in specific areas of concern to India’s global and regional interests. This should be seen as infusing operational experience and a robust sense of history into the planning process that is essential if new policy alternatives are to be incubated.
Such an institution can also provide the environment in which research activity by non-MEA personnel and operational expertise from the territorial divisions can find their right confluence before new policy options are presented to the ministry’s leadership. Speechwriting, an area, on which neither sufficient time is spent nor new ideas incorporated, should also emanate from such an institutional base. Eloquence of expression is the hallmark of the best foreign offices and our own should not be found lacking in this regard.
Short-term response culture
The organisational culture of foreign offices around the world has tended to favour operational responses to urgent and immediate situations rather than the patient definition of mid- and long-term strategy.
In history, policy planners, including luminaries like George Kennan, were left deeply frustrated by the manner in which the system had little appetite for long-term planning. The pushback from practitioners will always be intensely felt by planners. A respect for learning (including for studying and utilizing the MEA archives more intensively) and development of intellectual inputs (the ‘wonk space’) has to be inculcated in our diplomats from the beginning. Inducting talent from outside the ministry into the policy planning apparatus should aim at providing additional value to strategic and anticipatory thinking on future directions of foreign policy.
Since 2009, the annual intake of officers into the IFS on the basis of the Civil Services Examination has increased substantially and averages a little more than 30. In five to eight years from now, the effects of this increase will be manifest in a larger number of officers at the deputy secretary and director level being deployed with an undoubtedly beneficial impact on work output. Plans to augment this increase in strength with the intake laterally of outside expertise, in a calibrated and nuanced manner, can certainly strengthen capacity within the MEA to provide indispensable and critical inputs on strategic planning and thinking regarding India’s global role for the national security apparatus and the Prime Minister.
All said there is a slow but significant movement towards a more interactive, open-minded approach on augmenting capacity and innovation within the Ministry of External Affairs. It is good that boundaries between the MEA and the world outside are made less rigid so as to permit innovative thinking in various areas, political, economic, developmental and cultural. The door is open, and the future must be fully grasped.
The writer is a former foreign secretary of India