Lateral Entry Is Fine. But What About Enhancing the IAS's Professional Competence?

The fatal failing of the Indian bureaucracy has been its low level of professional competence, because once a young civil servant joins the service, he is shuffled among various departments allowing him no time to acquire expertise in any field.

Certain facts may help us to assess the issue of lateral entry more objectively.

First, in the past too, experts were inducted at senior positions into the government without any advertisement. Many of them, such as Dr. Manmohan Singh, Bimal Jalan, Lovraj Kumar, Vijay Kelkar, Montek Ahluwalia, Rakesh Mohan, Jairam Ramesh and Arvind Subramanian, left a good impact and contributed to the governance substantially in senior positions. The fact that some of them later joined the ruling party and served as ministers did not invite criticism of their past contribution when they served as joint secretaries or secretaries. Nor was the regime criticised for recruiting party-friendly professionals.

Russi Mody from the Tata Group headed Air India back in 1993, and in 2002, R.V. Shahi, chairman and managing director of the Bombay Suburban Electric Supply (commonly known as BSES) was made power secretary for five years.

As a general rule, scientific ministries, such as space or atomic energy, are less hierarchically organised and have allowed lateral entry of professionals more liberally. Thus, the experiment of inducting outsiders into the government is not new.

Moreover, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers have little expertise in subjects like civil aviation, defence, coal, shipping, etc., as the states where the IAS officers spend most of their early career do not deal with these subjects.

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission too had recommended lateral entry at senior positions. It is likely that some of the joint secretaries who would be recruited through the new process are already working as consultants in the same ministry.

Two, only 10 experts have been recruited so far as against a total strength of about 500 joint secretaries in the Central government. So, this should not cause any insecurity in the minds of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)-recruited career bureaucrats that it would minimise their scope for promotion.

Also read: Book Review: What Ails The IAS And Why It Fails To Deliver

Three, there is an acute shortage of middle-level IAS officers with 18 to 25 years of seniority, as the annual recruitment to the IAS in the 1990s was curtailed to just about 60-70 as against the present recruitment of about 180 per batch. This was done under the illusion that economic liberalisation would vastly reduce the need for central staffing.

However, the reverse happened, as with enhanced revenues of the Government of India (GOI) expanded its role not only in the social sector, such as anti-poverty programmes, education, health, and tribal welfare but also in many new emerging sectors such as telecommunications, information technology (IT), climate change, and road transport.

Representational image. Photo: PTI.

Due to the overall shortage of officials, most states are unwilling to release senior IAS officers for central deputation leading to a bizarre situation where a railway traffic officer works as joint secretary in the health department, and an ordnance service official finds himself in the ministry of tribal affairs!

Four, the IAS officers too lack the necessary domain knowledge, so essential for effective policymaking and delivery. This service is primarily responsible for India’s failure in achieving millennium development goals (MDG) goals in hunger, health, malnutrition, sanitation, and gender, as most IAS officers can neither design effective programmes nor can implement them with accountability.

Once they join the civil service in the states, they are shuffled after short tenures from one to the other department, so much so that they hardly get an opportunity to develop an understanding of technical aspects of a problem, or acquire the necessary professional expertise.

Living up to the demands of modern bureaucracy 

A high degree of professionalism ought to be the dominant characteristic of a modern bureaucracy. The fatal failing of the Indian bureaucracy has been its low level of professional competence. The IAS officer spends more than half of his tenure on policy desks where domain knowledge is a vital prerequisite.

However, in the present environment, there is no incentive for a young civil servant to acquire knowledge or to improve their skills. As years pass by, there is thus an exponential growth in both his ignorance and arrogance.

It is said that in the house of an IAS officer one would find only three books – the railway timetable, because he is always being shunted from one post to the other; a popular news magazine because that is his level of interest; and of course, the civil list – that describes the service hierarchy!

Finally, the fear that the outsider joint secretary would be ideologically inclined to the present regime needs to be judged in the context of mushrooming growth of “committed” bureaucracy (I would place that number as anything between 50% to 70% of the total, depending upon the cadre) that has been observed over the decades for a variety of reasons. The most important being cut-throat competition that exists in the IAS for important positions, both at the state and central levels.

Due to the control that the IAS lobby exerts on the system, a large number of redundant posts in the super-time and superior scales have been created to ensure them quick promotions. Often a senior post has been split, thus diluting and diminishing the scale of responsibilities attached with the post.

Also read: Bureaucrats More Wary of ‘How’ Than ‘Why’ of Lateral Entry Into Civil Services

For instance, in Uttar Pradesh against the post of one chief secretary, there are 18 officers now in equivalent but far less important posts drawing the same salary. This inverted pyramid (too many people at the top and too few in the middle and lower rungs) has apparently been created to avoid demoralisation due to stagnation, but the net result has been just the opposite.

First, it leads to cutthroat competition within the service to grab the important slots. The old camaraderie has vanished. Instances are not lacking when IAS officers wanting plum job have gone to the politicians denigrating their competitors.

Second, this no-holds-barred competition is then exploited by politicians in pitting one against the other leading to officers becoming more pliable. The lure of post-retirement sinecures further increases the number of those who would be willing to crawl when asked to bend.

However, getting only 10 joint secretaries from the open market through UPSC is not enough to radically professionalise the civil service. The government needs to promote internal specialisation by insisting on stable tenure in the states, so that there is an incentive for the IAS to acquire expertise in their chosen sectors.

An IAS officer who has seen the plight of patients at the district level and has also worked in the state medical department would be a far more effective joint secretary in the ministry of health and family welfare than a doctor with specialisation in just one narrow subject.

But it is counterproductive to fill up senior positions with career civil servants who do not have previous experience in that broad field. Therefore, after the first 10 years of service, each IAS officer should be encouraged to specialise in one or two chosen sectors by not only giving them long tenures but even permitting them to join academic or research organisations where they could improve their intellectual skills.

IAS officers should take the entry of 10 outsiders as a challenge because if they do not improve their performance, there could be repetition of such recruitment every year.

Even if UPSC recruits the directors/joint secretaries from the open market, there is a serious risk. One needs to examine the background of the specialists who have already been recently recruited to various ministries. It is likely that some of them have worked for long years in the private sector. How fair and impartial an officer, say who has worked in Indigo Airlines, would be as joint secretary in the civil aviation department, to a request from the same airlines? How to avoid such a conflict of interest?

Summing up, with some qualifications, one welcomes more experts from the open market but professionalising the rest 490 joint secretaries and the entire IAS requires greater attention. That needs wider administrative reforms by addressing issues of governance at the state and district levels, which I have discussed in my book on the IAS, What Ails the IAS and Why It Fails to Deliver: An Insider View.

N.C. Saxena is a former IAS officer and served as a secretary to the government of India.