Bureaucrats More Wary of 'How' Than 'Why' of Lateral Entry Into Civil Services

Veteran IAS officers agree there is a need for greater specialisation in the civil services, but are unhappy with the cut in recruitments over the years and the move to bypass the UPSC system.

New Delhi: The Centre’s move to allow lateral entry into empanelled bureaucracy has opened up a complex debate that has been ongoing for, at least, the last two decades. While a big chunk of the civil servants has largely been inimical to the idea –although they agree with the need for greater specialisation in the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) – its votaries believe this will infuse new energy in government functioning and help it fill up the shortfall in bureaucracy, especially in large states.

The government of India, in a pilot project, has advertised openings for 10 joint secretary posts on a contractual basis – three years, extendable upto five depending on performance. The candidates should be above 40 years of age and hold at least a Ph.D. The positions are to be filled up by a committee headed by the cabinet secretary in another two months.

One of the first meetings that the Narendra Modi-led government had in 2014, soon after being elected, was on planning a way through which specialists could be brought into the civil services through lateral entry. The prime minister asked secretaries of various ministries to prepare proposals to allow lateral entry of bureaucrats from academia and private sector at the joint secretary level. However, nothing moved for the next three years because no serious proposal was submitted.

Narendra Modi’s meeting with secretaries in the Central government in June 2014. Credit: narendramodi.in

However, last July, the prime minister’s office instructed the department of personnel and training to prepare a proposal to hire such professionals in ministries that concerned themselves with economy and infrastructure. The government has, indeed, taken a leaf out of the second Administrative Reforms Commission in 2005, which recommended lateral entry of officers at both the Central and state levels through a transparent, institutionalised process. Various private think-tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have been stressing on the need to reform the civil services by allowing lateral entry. The shortage of officers in large states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has also propelled the government to explore possibilities of recruitment outside the laid-down procedures.

This is not the first time that specialists from outside the civil services are being brought in. At the secretary level, a number of such specialists have been hired by different governments. But it is definitely a first that the government is planning to hire professionals at the crucial joint secretary level, which is responsible for designing most policies.

Not surprisingly, the government’s move has invited both praise and suspicion.

‘UPSC System Bypassed’

First, the doubts. A number of former IAS officers who retired from senior positions look at the move with some degree of reservation although none of them objected to the idea of a lateral entry of experts. They have objected to the fact that the government has allowed lateral entry by bypassing the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), which conducts the three-tier civil services examination annually, and has, instead, instructed the cabinet secretary-headed committee to recruit professionals.

IAS Exam

Bureaucrats question why the UPSC system, which has worked well, is being ‘substituted by a committee that is not defined’. Credit: Reuters/FIles

Sundar Burra, a 1974-batch Maharashtra cadre bureaucrat, who took voluntary retirement when he was serving as secretary to the government of Maharashtra, told The Wire, “The 92-year-old UPSC is a constitutional institution. It has managed to retain its credibility and legitimacy over all these years just because it has remained largely autonomous of the the government of the day. So the question arises, why are we bypassing a system which has worked very well and substituting it with a committee which is not defined?”

He added that the civil services in India are protected under the Constitution as “our founding fathers like Sardar Patel fought for the services to be independent in the constituent assembly.”

“He (Patel) said that he wants his secretary to freely express his opinion that may well be different from from his and that one must have these services to hold the country together,” he said.

Burra said while he does not object to lateral entry, the government should ensure that the recruits remain independent of “fissiparous tendencies”. While stressing on a transparent process of recruitment, he said that sanctity of the selection procedure should remain for the services to stay insulated from the government of the day

He also raised a point about the ‘vague’ eligibility of candidates. “What the advertisement says is that candidates should hold a Ph.D, which is merely a degree. The government should have elaborated on what expertise the candidate needs, as the openings are for highly specialised positions. Therefore, the recruitment has to be done after wide consultation and using constitutional methods. Let the UPSC define it. That is the proper body for it,”Burra said.

Open Door for Private Sector

Second, some bureaucrats were also wary of the increasing influence of the private sector, something which the lateral entrants could aid.

Former cabinet secretary B.K.Chaturvedi told The Wire, “In the past, too many private individuals from the World Bank and other sources have joined the government. Montek (Singh Ahluwalia), Shankar Acharya and Arvind Virmani are some good examples. Prior to that, in the early 1950s, from management pool system, people like Lovraj Kumar had come.Vijay Kelkar is another example of persons who have enriched the services.The size of proposed government recruitment (10) is much too small to make a difference. But the worry is the source of recruitment. There is a danger that business houses may use the opportunity to push in there own men.Unless we pick good officers, we may be in danger of business houses controlling the key government decisions. While excellence in service is highly desirable, we will have to guard against business houses taking over government policy making.”

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Shankar Acharya and Arvind Virmani are some examples of lateral recruits by earlier governments.

Burra, too, concurred. “Suppose a former employee of Monsanto seeds joins the agriculture ministry as joint secretary. His main aim could be to finish off the indigenous seed industry in India. There is a possibility that they could further their private sector agenda. You can bring domain expertise. I am not against the idea, but how you do it is most important.”

Focus on Recruitment, Specialisation

Third, a section of the bureaucracy is of the opinion that shortage of officers is a problem of the government’s own making. “Yes, IAS officers do need specialisation. I think the government should ask all officers to specialise in one domain after 10 years of their service. Right now, most lack that skill. But the government in the period following liberalisation cut short the recruitments drastically – to almost one-third of the normal numbers. The larger idea was that the government should withdraw from governance as much as possible. However, as the focus towards the social sector increased, the workload of officers increased. Now there is an acute shortage of officers at the higher level,” said N.C.Saxena, a former bureaucrat, who also taught newly-recruited civil servants at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, for eight years.

Said Keshav Desiraju, former health secretary, “The point to note is that recruitment of IAS officers between 1990 and 1995 dropped to around 55. These are officers who would have now become eligible for joint secretary’s positions. But because we did not recruit at a crucial time, there is a terrible shortage at the JS level.”

Most of them felt that the UPSC should increase the number of recruitments to avoid such situations in future.

No Long-Term Stake

Fourth, and more important, these civil servants believe that the lateral entry system in civil services may not bring in much gains.

“The advantage with the current civil service is that policy makers have long-term interests in government. They also have a tradition of fairness and stake in the government. Private sector individuals brought on contract of three or five years may serve someone else’s interest as they would have no long-term stake in the government. I don’t think that these persons (lateral recruits) will add much value to the overall civil service system. The basic need is for a civil servant’s skills to be upgraded. We need to bring in better specialisation in the last 15 years of service post JS-level jobs. The need is for greater service specialisation. That is the weak underbelly of the services. Thus, we must fill gaps and not build wholesale new housing,” Chaturvedi said.

“If there are gaps in highly specialised areas, we may need to get such persons.I don’t think that government has identified such highly specialised areas. At least, this information is not in public domain.”

Similarly, Desiraju said, “I think the question to ask is what is the problem you are trying to solve. One answer to that could be that we need subject matter specialisation and much better professional skills at the level of JS. But then, one may ask whether getting an outside person is the best way of filling that gap. It is not that a service officer coming at the level of JS is bringing no skills at all. An IAS officer who joins the government of India brings the knowledge of how state governments work, how field-level implementation of subjects in the state list of the Constitution – healthcare, primary education, revenue management and law – works. Officers learn work in their state cadre. They bring in this experience at the level of policy-making positions.”

“There are very good officers. Not all officers are good, but then even in the private sector, not everyone is good,” he said, adding that, “Our system gains nothing if I engage somebody for three or five years. This person may work hard but eventually has to go away. I am not in position to make him additional secretary and give the person more responsibility.”

Reiterating the importance of state experience, Desiraju said, “The government of India in a federal structure needs to work with states. So, yes, in principle, I support that standards of professionalism and subject matter knowledge need to be improved in the services, but please do not throw away the benefits of the present structure. Ours in not the American system where with every change in the presidency, 5,000 jobs become available. We have an organised service where officers serve their cadre under constitutional oath” adding that the government of India should provide more clarity on the need for lateral entry.

Questions on the Reservation Policy

Fifth, many in the civil society raised the point that the lateral entry system will not take into account the reservation policy for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and that the government would be violating the Constitution.

In this context, Chaturvedi said, “So long as they are recruiting specialists on a contract basis for highly specialised needs, reservation may not be needed. But if large-scale regular lateral entry is undertaken, it would be highly undesirable and would amount to destroying the current civil service system. If they do large-scale recruitment, reservation would be a basic parameter.”

Most career bureaucrats, however, dismissed the apprehension that the Narendra Modi government was trying to provide backdoor entry to Right-wing individuals. They said that the government does not need to look outside to have a committed bureaucracy under it, and that all governments have always selected like-minded individuals for important positions. Thus, the lateral entry system cannot be singled out for such criticism. However, most maintained that bypassing the UPSC for such recruitments was unnecessary.

Private Sector Sees Benefits

While many bureaucrats remained wary, private sector personnel welcomed the move. Gaurav Taneja, a partner in EY (formerly Ernst & Young) consultancy group and who is currently collaborating with the government in crucial programmes like skill development, felt that the doubts raised by bureaucrats were unnecessary as there were enough checks and balances in the government system.

Taneja, who has reportedly played a significant role in convincing the government to allow lateral entry, told The Wire, “I think what we are seeing is a world which is getting increasingly complex. The policies which we make in such a world have an implication at the policy, strategy and at the implementation level. So, lateral entry of specialists will only benefit the system, given the complexities of governance.”

Responding to doubts raised by bureaucrats, he said the lateral entry system was currently at an experimental stage and can be done away with if it is not successful. “It is good that it is pilot of 10. It is also a fixed term contract and not in perpetuity. Also, since the recruitment is at very high level, the professionals will not be confronting the problems of implementation that a civil servant has to face at the state level.”

Referring to problems, like non-cooperation from IAS officers, a lateral entry person has had to face in the past, he said “a lateral recruit should be allowed to function in a congenial and collaborative environment. That will remain a challenge. The person should be allowed to function with independence that a typical IAS officer enjoys.”

Regarding the doubts raised by several bureaucrats about rising private sector influence, he said, “government decisions are never taken in isolation. It will be a concerted effort. There is a framework under which he will work. One needs a supportive environment to make the system work well. The NITI Aayog is consulted from time to time. What is the harm in having one specialist in the system?”

Taneja said citizens and businesses of the country should have a role in policy-making. “Policy directions are not made in isolation. I believe that the government will know how to use their skills in a good way. Further, there are enough checks and balances to not let one interest dominate over another,” he added.

Lack of specialisation in the civil services and inadequate recruitment in the early 1990s appear to have forced the need for a lateral entry system currently. It remains to be seen whether the 10 new recruits fit into the overall functioning of the government or not. In the meantime, the government would do well to address the crucial issues raised by the senior bureaucrats.