Insights into Editorial: The need for lateral entry in civil services
With a Committee of Secretaries favouring lateral entry into the civil service, the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) has been instructed to put up a proposal on the induction of outsiders in the middle rung of ministries that deal with economy and infrastructure.
Instructions have come from the Prime Minister’s Office to prepare a broad outline of modalities for selecting private individuals for appointment in the ranks of deputy secretary, director and joint secretary. The move was in response to a central government staffing policy paper where the DoPT had indicated a huge shortage of officers in the middle management level.
Is it a new idea?
The idea of lateral induction is not new. It was recommended by the 2nd Administrative Reform Commission, high level committees appointed by different governments and a plethora of think tanks.
Need for alter entry in civil services:
Shortfall in numbers: There is an overall 20% shortfall of IAS cadre officers alone in 24 state cadres. The Baswan Committee (2016) has shown how large states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have a deficit of 75 to over 100 officers and their unwillingness to sponsor officers to go to the Centre on deputation is understandable. Lateral induction is, therefore, a small step towards essential housekeeping in central government staffing and ought to be supported.
Target oriented: Outside talent from the private sector is more likely to be target-oriented, which will improve the performance of the government. Also, more competition will encourage career civil servants to develop expertise in areas of their choice.
Improved governance: The conventional wisdom on lateral entry is that it infuses fresh energy and thinking into an insular, complacent and often archaic bureaucracy. It enables the entry of right-minded professionals and the adoption of best practices for improving governance.
Why this may not be a good idea?
Disturbed balance: The proposal for lateral entry at senior decision-making levels, besides increasing the disconnect between policymaking and implementation, will also result in inequitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of government service, with permanent civil servants left to bear the burden of “humble” implementation and lateral entrants getting access to “glamorous” policymaking positions, without having roughed it out in remote and rural India in the rough and tumble of Indian democracy. While there would certainly be a beeline for lateral entrants to join top policymaking positions, there would be no such great desire to serve the country at the ground level.
Previous experiences: While there may be exceptions, the experience of inducting private-sector managers to run public-sector enterprises is not particularly satisfactory. Whiz-kids from the private sector who ran Air India, Indian Airlines and Vayudoot proved to be failures. Clearly, performance is vitally influenced by the enabling environment and the best managerial capability cannot deliver results in an adverse operating environment. A major part of the disillusionment (if any) with civil servants can be attributed to this enabling environment where innovation and risk-taking have been at a heavy discount.
Deters the available talent: The best talent can be attracted only if there is reasonable assurance of reaching top level managerial positions. This is true for government service as much as the private sector. Any dilution of the potential horizon for growth would discourage competent and motivated people. By suggesting a contract-based system for positions of joint secretary and above, the signal would be sent out that only mid-career positions would be within reach in about 15-18 years of service and there would be considerable uncertainty about career progression thereafter. Coupled with unattractive salary scales and non-entitlement to defined pension since 2004, this would become a potent trinity to deter talented persons from aspiring to civil service careers.
Discontent among the government personnel: Large-scale lateral induction would, in fact, amount to a vote of no-confidence in the government personnel management system, rather than in the highly dedicated, motivated and talented officers who have chosen to join the civil services.
Difficulty in assessing performance: The difficulty in measuring performance in government is another obstacle to be reckoned with. It is not easy to assess the performance of a secretary to the government, given the sheer complexity and amorphous nature of the job. The induction of lateral entrants would not by itself suffice for better performance orientation and enhanced accountability. It would be as difficult to measure the performance of lateral entrants as it would of career civil servants.
What can be done?
A good managerial system encourages and nurtures talent from within instead of seeking to induct leadership from outside. Any failure in this matter is primarily a failure of the system to identify and nurture talent at the appropriate stage. For this, the remedy lies not through lateral induction but through more rigorous performance appraisal and improved personnel management.
- In this context, the government could contemplate hiring outside talent to head certain pre-identified mission-mode projects and public-sector entities where private-sector expertise could be invaluable — like in the case of Nandan Nilekani and Aadhaar. Similarly, leadership positions in large infrastructure projects could be filled through open competition between civil servants and market talent.
- The recruitment and service rules for such posts have to be clearly defined and made incentive-compatible, and the processes managed transparently. A credible statutory agency like the Union Public Service Commission or an autonomous agency like the Bank Board Bureau, established to hire heads of public-sector banks, should be entrusted with the responsibility of recruitment.
- All this, coupled with competition among both serving bureaucrats and market participants, would help avoid many of the aforementioned pitfalls associated with general lateral entry. Further, this would be in line with the lateral entry strategy adopted by more developed parliamentary democracies like the UK.
- Such an approach would have to be complemented with liberalised norms that allow civil servants to work outside government — with multilateral agencies, nonprofits and corporations — for short periods. By enabling exposure to market practices and fresh ideas, this, as much as infusing outside talent into government, is likely to help achieve the objectives of lateral entry itself.
India’s civil services need reform. There is little argument about this. Internal reforms—such as insulation from political pressure and career paths linked to specialization—and external reforms such as lateral entry are complementary, addressing the same deficiencies from different angles. Thus, lateral entry cannot be a panacea for everything. It has been an exception in the Indian civil service system and should continue to be so.