Lateral entry is good, but more is needed
Bringing in private sector talent can buttress the bureaucracy but far-reaching reforms are needed to revitalize it
On Sunday, the Narendra Modi government took its first step towards fulfilling a goal it had set in 2014. That was when the Centre had mooted the idea of allowing lateral entry from academia and the private sector at the joint-secretary level. The years since have seen a fair amount of will-they-won’t-they. The proposal was abandoned, publicly disavowed, and then resurrected last year. Now, the department of personnel and training’s call for applications to fill 10 joint-secretary level posts in various departments—it has the feel of a pilot project—shows that this time, there is intent to persist with the process initiated last year. This is both welcome and inadequate to address India’s governance challenges.
The civil service’s fall from grace has been partly earned and partly a matter of circumstances. The function and form of any governance institution is shaped by the political and economic contexts it works within. These contexts have changed dramatically over the decades. Vallabhbhai Patel’s conception of the Indian Administrative Service’s (IAS’) role as a binding agent in a newly independent nation that was wildly heterogenous and traumatized was of its time. The old, existential threats no longer exist. Indian federalism has changed accordingly, both politically and economically. When it comes to the latter, the IAS is caught uneasily between old and new: intervening in the market for socio-economic purposes and facilitating market outcomes.
Responding to such challenges requires political will and direction. Too often, these have been missing. At other times, they have been employed to perverse effect by a political elite that finds a subservient bureaucracy useful. IAS officers are afforded certain constitutional protections. But there are plenty of ways for politicians to apply pressure on them. These range from transfers to changing a post’s functions to make it a de facto demotion. The same tactics can be used to reward bureaucratic loyalty.
Thus, for example, Lakshmi Iyer and Anandi Mani, after empirically studying the links between politicians and bureaucrats, noted in Traveling Agents: Political Change And Bureaucrat Turnover in India (The Review Of Economics And Statistics, 2012) that a change in a state’s chief minister caused the probability of bureaucratic reassignments to spike. They also found that officers of high initial ability were no more likely to be assigned to important posts than those who possessed less ability but were politically compliant—and that officers belonging to the same caste as the chief minister’s base had a higher chance of winning such assignments.
This skews the risk-reward calculation for bureaucrats. Expertise is no longer the only—or perhaps even the best—way to advance. Frequent transfers are not only personally disruptive, they can scupper an officer’s chances of obtaining the highest Central posts via a notoriously non-transparent “empanelment” process. This dynamic also discourages specialized knowledge. Short tenures provide little opportunity for it, for one. Secondly, while IAS officers have generous study-leave provisions, the seniority-based promotion structure and lack of correlation between areas of expertise and posting make the benefits questionable.
The upshot is a bureaucracy ill-suited to the rapidly changing nature of technology-fuelled economic progress and governance. Lateral entry is essential to infuse fresh vigour into this closed “mandarin” system. The UK has already attempted this with some success. Countries with similar systems that haven’t are suffering. Japan’s famously powerful bureaucracy is dealing with a loss of effectiveness and reputation not dissimilar to India’s. The French bureaucracy is, and always has been, infamously stifling.
India’s political context, however, means that this will have to be done carefully. The recruitment and selection process must be transparent and involve an autonomous body like the Union Public Service Commission to minimize the risk of political considerations trumping merit. This is the route the UK, Australia and New Zealand have taken, and the second administrative reforms committee has recommended as much. The inevitable push-back from the IAS will also have to be managed. So will the lateral entry recruits’ lack of familiarity with operating in a government environment, particularly one as labyrinthine as India’s.
All of which should make it clear that as potentially beneficial as lateral entries are, they are not a panacea. They can buttress the IAS. They cannot replace it. Technocratic skills are important. But so is the IAS’ unduplicable experience of ground-level governance in India. From rewarding performance to curbing the culture of political patronage, difficult—a pessimist would say near impossible—reforms are necessary. Without this, all the private sector talent in the world will not be able to make up for the deficiencies of a bureaucracy low on morale, performance and reputation.
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