In defense of lateral-entry

Recently, the decision of Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT) to come out with an advertisement for lateral entry to joint secretary positions in Government of India has generated a lot of debate and controversy. However, the idea of lateral entry into civil service is not entirely new in India. In the past, domain experts have been brought in from outside the services to head various departments and organizations be it technocrats like V. Krishnamurthy, R.V. Shahi and Nandan Nilekani, or scientist like M S Swaminathan or economists like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Rakesh Mohan, Vijay Kelkar and Arvind Subramanian.The system of lateral entry could never be institutionalized mainly due to push back from the permanent civil service and sheer inertia of the government system. There are few exceptions like Niti Aayog (and the Planning Commission before it) who have consistently allowed and practiced lateral entry. But the idea was never transformed into a policy or formal mechanism despite a number of reports suggesting the same. Till as recent as August 2016, GOI had denied that there was any formal proposal to even constitute a committee to study feasibility of lateral entry into the civil services let alone have a well-defined institutional mechanism. Thus the recent proposal of DOPT though seems hasty and sketchy has the potential to finally disrupt the status quo.

In 1953, on invitation of Government of India, Paul H. Appleby, an eminent theorist of public administration in democracies and US consultant conducted a survey of public administration in India. One of the important observations was the insightful and in many ways still valid aphorism from Appleby- “Indian administration is action shy”. One of the ways of bringing in the dynamism in the administration he suggested would be to have recruiting flexibility. Although Appleby went to the extent of doubting the desirability and efficacy of permanent bureaucracy, the non-partisan ‘civil service’ in India has proved its functionality and has stood the test of time. However, no significant dent has been made on the malaise of tardiness in decision making and procrastination in action in public administration in India. The issue of “lateral entry” in civil-services therefore has to be seen in the context of higher goal of making governance more result oriented, quick, adaptive and people friendly. The discourse however has somewhat degenerated into whether the government should bring in professionals from outside to break the stranglehold of permanent civil service vs the need to protect the institution of bureaucracy from undermining by political manipulation and capture. Those who support lateral entry, say that it would enable people with specialized skills to work in the Government at the policy making level and would bring in competition to the bureaucracy. The resistance to the idea of ‘lateral entry’ comes in the form of following arguments:

  • The presently proposed recruitment process for lateral entry is not well-defined, fair &transparent which may result in induction of non- deserving and mediocre.
  • There are no checks on possibility of getting someone who’s ideologically biased and antithetical to our core constitutional values and thus not desirable for our plural democracy.
  • The career civil servants are superior (in the sense of being more suitable) to those who may not have gone through the same competitive exam process or have not been exposed to the government administrative process at division, district or state level.
  • Public administration is fundamentally so distinct from management in other sphere and working in government is complex and so different that there is little scope of learning from non- government organizations and little chance that the individuals working at the middle level in non-government organizations and having different work experience can bring in any value to the government.

The first two could be genuine cause of concern and should be addressed in an effective and transparent way by involving institutions like UPSC and devising a more rigorous entry process. However, the last two arguments could also be the result of what sociologists would call the ethnocentric bias (civil services being superior) and flawed notion that there could be no inter-play between public and non-government management principles and practices.

The lateral entry could be an antidote to structural failings and complacency besetting Indian bureaucracy. We are living in a 21st century dynamic economy where constant learning and un-learning is required. The need for specialized skills and knowledge and ability to learn new ways in the administration is more important than ever. While a number of junior officers do acquire specialized knowledge and skills during their career. In the postings, there is no correlation between assignments they are given and their area of specialization mainly because of near absence of cadre- management policy at the state level. The Political interference and the use of transfers as carrot and stick further complicate the picture, often making it difficult for bureaucrats to stay in a posting long enough to gain relevant expertise. The lateral entry of experts at the GOI level can not only bring in expertise but may also result in useful process of peer-learning making civil servants more competitive. In fact, a right mix of generalists and specialists can go a long way in mitigating the unidimensional view and cognitive bias in the policy making. Secondly, lateral entrants apart from bringing their own work culture could also induce competition within the system. When civil servants are made to compete with outside talent, the lethargic and complacent attitude is challenged propelling overall efficiency. We can learn from international experience like Australia, UK, and the US where senior positions that are open to appointments from a wider pool of civil servants as well as private-sector executives with relevant domain experience. Finally, the civil servants should also be encouraged to move out and work for different sectors on a short-term basis to enrich their knowledge and acquire skills and work-ethics to make the administration more adaptive and dynamic. Thus, lateral exit is as important as lateral entry.

It is important to reflect why the civil-servants develop ethno-centric bias and strong idea of government sector exclusivity. The ethno-centric bias stems from the disproportionate attention, visibility and glory given to the civil-services in our society and is perpetuated by tribal mentality and instinct of protecting the turf. There could be no two arguments about the fact that civil services have played a foundational role in the stability and progress of our country and truly proved to be the ‘steel structure’ of Indian administration. However, Indian bureaucracy has also been extremely hierarchical and formal, sometimes complacent and condescending and somewhat indifferent and statusquoist in its approach and attitude. The presence of these attributes have made it develop what Robert K Merton calls ‘acquired incompetencies’ thereby making it resistant to free expression, new ideas and learning new skills from outside. What could be done to rid it of this malaise?

First of all, we need to rationally examine the self- image and idea of bureaucracy’s role in the country’s administration. It’s true that a lot of bureaucrats have been ‘change agents’ and made difference to the lives of millions by their innovative ideas and relentless efforts. But when it comes to scaling up the successful projects and institutionalizing the good governance initiatives, the system doesn’t respond much. The reasons could be multiple ranging from poor documentation to weak institutional memory to personalized style of administration of the champions as well governance becoming more n more about packaging rather than delivery. First thing to do for the civil service therefore is to sheds its elitism and come out of the notion of exclusivity. Our exaggerated sense of ‘self-importance’ and carrying the burden of being the lone champion of change is not going to yield long lasting systemic reforms. Let’s admit that the changes driven solely by individual bureaucrat though laudable and desirable are not the best solution to India’s pervasive governance problem. At best they result in partial incremental reforms and at worst in adhocism, complacency, and diverting the attention from the looming systemic problems. It’s high time we understand that we are not superheroes entrusted with the responsibility of saving the world. We are part of a larger system, though an important part. We are public managers and advisors and should see ourselves as leading the large administrative apparatus at middle and top level where contribution of every government servant is important and team work matters. The direction this apparatus follows, its priorities or the policy that informs its actions are (and rightly so) driven by political executives accountable to people. So let’s not burden ourselves with the ‘ national responsibility’ or shed ‘ crocodile tears’ over future of India. Let’s strive to become better and more efficient as managers. Let’s focus on delivery rather than getting distracted by packaging. The socialization of the civil servants early-on in this direction would prepare them psychologically for learning from outsiders and prepare them for looking at lateral entry at the higher and middle level more constructively. Secondly, it’s very vital that a system of Key performance indicators (KPIs) for every assignment and objective transparent evaluation based on the KPIs is devised. Presently, the opaque Performance appraisal report system (PAR) is prone to subjectivity, misuse as well as favoritism and cronyism. Moreover, it breeds regressive conformism, frustrates genuine performance and thwarts honest criticism.

It’s high time that an efficient, bold and performance- oriented civil service is nurtured and developed to act as an effective tool subservient to the goals of political-economy of the nation. The civil- service thus developed would not only be ready to take on challenges posed by lateral entrants, it would be adaptive in learning, un-learning and re-learning as per the needs of the system. The best change is the change that comes from within. It’s almost fashionable in our country to bash the civil- servants and they rightly receive flak on many issues. However, one thing they can’t be accused of is not being self-critical. While the individual civil-servants have always been self- reflective and ready to meet any challenge, it’s time the system as a whole becomes more receptive to change. The governance of the country and our robust civil-service full of meritorious individuals will only improve by lateral- entry & lateral-exit. After all, good governance is judged more by what it does, create or include rather than what it doesn’t do, deny or exclude.

(The views and opinions expressed in this article by the author are personal and do not reflect any reference to any individual )

IAS Officer, Secretary to Government of Gujarat. Municipal Commissioner, Vadodara.

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