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No, Prime Minister: Babus resist lateral entry of experts into top IAS posts

Catch Team | Updated on: 15 July 2017, 22:05 IST

It sounds like something straight out of the classic BBC comedy series 'Yes, Minister'. The minister proposes to bring experts into senior positions in the bureaucracy, and the mandarins reject the proposal, because “they aren't one of us!”

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) recently asked the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) to put up a proposal on the induction of outsiders at the deputy secretary and joint secretary level, in ministries dealing with economy and infrastructure. The move came in the light of a DoPT report which indicated a serious shortfall in the number of officers at the middle-management level.

But serving and retired bureaucrats say this is yet another move to pave way for lateral entry into the civil services, and could open up a Pandora's box, even though others – like planning experts – are wholeheartedly in favour of it, and say it should have been brought in long ago.

Previous proposal

This is not the first time a proposal to allow lateral entry is being talked about. In 2015, Minister of State in the PMO, Jitendra Singh, had told Parliament that there was no proposal for lateral entry into the services. He listed several other ways of how the government was addressing the shortage of officers, including “increased annual intake from 55 in Civil Service Examination (CSE) 1998 to 180 in CSE 2015”, and how the “the government has sensitised state governments to send complete and updated proposals to Union Public Service Commission for selection of suitable officers for promotion quota of IAS.”

The IAS Officers' Association, too, is said to have deliberated on the idea after the gauntlet was thrown down by the government last year. The bureaucrats, while being in favour of the idea, had given it a caveat: that the process of induction should not be discretionary. (Side note: In the TV series, too, the bureaucrats all agree to the proposal in principle, but then point out problems in implementing it in their own departments.)

A paper on Indian bureaucracy by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace quotes the Civil Services Survey, and how “only 43% of all IAS officers agree with the idea of merit-based lateral entry into the higher echelons of the civil service, compared with 56% for all other services.”

Babus resist

As per the recent directive, private sector executives or social workers would be brought in through a process involving evaluation of their experience and qualification, without taking into account their existing salaries. The final selection will be done by the Cabinet Secretary, the senior-most bureaucrat in the country.

The report talks about the possibility of about 40 lateral entrants at the level of joint secretaries.

“The only thing a joint secretary level officer gets as a perk is a car – that too, with a limit of the fuel one can claim in the month,” a serving bureaucrat says. “With no monetary incentive, again, chances are that only 'junk' will come in. Plus, these people from outside would not know how the government functions. We have learnt it over the years.”

“This is like a bandaid,” says a former bureaucrat, with a rich experience of serving both in the government and in the private sector, who wishes to remain anonymous. “The government's problems of governance are much larger. We need to ask the fundamental question. Has the idea of generalist administrator, the thought behind the IAS, failed its purpose? Has the generalist administrator failed?”.

Full backing from planning experts

However, Arun Maira, former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, feels it is a step in the right direction. He points out that it is important to reform the institutions before one sets out for other big bang reforms.

“This was just one of the proposals of the Administrative Staff Commission,” Maira says, explaining how the government has already started with a 360 degree appraisal, another recommendation of this commission. The government is also serious about implementing the 'up or out' policy, which entails asking the underperforming senior bureaucrats to take voluntary retirement once they complete 20 years of service.

Maira explains why it is important to supplement the existing bureaucracy at the senior level with specialists from outside the system. He says it would lead to competition between those who talk about their seniority and networks, a reference to senior bureaucrats, and specialists, who have actually worked in the area and are bringing that experience to the table.

Even the present NITI Aayog seems to be in favour of lateral entry.

"Such entry will also have the beneficial side-effect of bringing competition to the established career bureaucracy," says the draft three-year action agenda for 2017-18 to 2019-20. "Today, rising complexity of the economy has meant that policy-making is a specialised activity. Therefore, it is essential that specialists be inducted into the system through lateral entry.”

It is not surprising, because Arvind Panagriya, the present vice-chairman of the NITI Aayog, in a 2005 paper, had talked about the need to end the monopoly of the IAS by allowing lateral entries. He had claimed that the service had become a lobby out to protect its narrow interests, and that entailed the need to subject it to outside competition.

Past examples

But the serving bureaucrat Catch spoke to points out two failed examples of lateral entry from the past: Russi Mody, a senior Tata executive who was made the head of Air India, and RV Shahi, who was brought in from the Reliance-owned BSES as Power Secretary by minister Suresh Prabhu under AB Vajpayee's premiership.

“They could not do anything spectacular,” the bureaucrat says, adding how the selection process should not be to pick and choose. “It is very different to run a private enterprise and to make policies in government, which impact the whole country.”

Interestingly, recently, the Government of India brought in Vaidya Rajesh Kotecha, an ayurvedic doctor with links to the RSS and a former vice-chancellor of the Gujarat Ayurveda University, in the senior position of a special secretary in the Ministry of AYUSH.

The former bureaucrat Catch spoke to warns: “This move could turn into a not-so-subtle way of bringing in your own people.”

First published: 15 July 2017, 22:05 IST