Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The need for lateral entry in civil services

It is both a workaround for the civil services' structural failings and an antidote to the complacency of a career-based service

Soon after coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held two meetings with the secretaries heading all the Central government departments. Improving governance outcomes was high on the discussion agenda. But the resolve went only so far. One of Modi’s first attempts to improve governance—in July that year, the Centre asked cadre-controlling authorities to submit proposals on allowing lateral entry from academia and the private sector at the joint secretary level—was quietly abandoned. And last year, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO), Jitendra Singh, noted in the Lok Sabha, in response to a query by Shashi Tharoor, that there was no proposal for studying the feasibility of lateral entry into the civil services.

The government has now changed tack again: the PMO has instructed the department of personnel and training to prepare a proposal for middle-rung lateral entry in ministries dealing with the economy and infrastructure. Promising as this is, such proposals have been made before. For instance, in 2005, the second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) recommended an institutionalized, transparent process for lateral entry at both the Central and state levels. But pushback from bureaucrats, serving and retired, and the sheer institutional inertia of civil services that have existed largely unchanged for decades have prevented progress.

That stagnation means the civil services as they exist today—most crucially, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)—are unsuited to the country’s political economy in many ways. In Public Institutions In India, K.P. Krishnan and T.V. Somanathan define effectiveness of the civil service, from an institutional economics perspective, as its “contribution… to the reduction of the transaction costs for economic entities". But a newly independent India had pressing concerns about the need for socioeconomic development, the demands of Central planning and the imperative of holding together a new nation subject to internal political pressures. The Constituent Assembly debates make it clear that the civil services were seen as a tool—by Vallabhbhai Patel, for instance—for achieving these objectives. Their creation and functioning thus gave rise to a tribe of generalist administrators whose economic effectiveness was sometimes subordinate to other concerns.

Seven decades later, those dynamics have changed. Some concerns, such as the need for having bureaucrats act as binding agents, no longer exist. Others, such as socioeconomic development, have transmuted to the point where the state’s methods of addressing them are coming in for a rethink. And new concerns have arisen, such as the shift from the uniformity of centrally planned economic policy to the diverse demands of competitive federalism. The importance of economic effectiveness has risen concurrently. In a 21st century economy, a quarter century after liberalization, that means the need for specialized skills and knowledge to inform policy-making and administration is more important than ever. Indeed, the first ARC had pointed out the need for specialization as far back as in 1965. The Surinder Nath Committee and the Hota Committee followed suit in 2003 and 2004, respectively, as did the second ARC.

Those recommendations have largely gone begging. Diving deep into the available data, Milan Vaishnav and Saksham Khosla find in “The Indian Administrative Service Meets Big Data", a 2016 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace paper, that while there is a higher chance of junior officers who have acquired specialized knowledge and skills gaining much-prized Central government postings, there is no correlation between the postings and their area of specialization. That correlation comes into existence only at a late-career stage. 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.

Thus the need for lateral entry. It is both a workaround for the civil services’ structural failings and an antidote to the complacency that can set in a career-based service. The second ARC report points out that it is both possible and desirable to incorporate elements of a position-based system where lateral entry and specialization are common. These are not entirely new in India. Domain experts have been brought in from outside the services to head various committees, advisory bodies and organizations. Nandan Nilekani, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Vijay Kelkar, Arvind Subramanian and Raghuram Rajan are all cases in point. Both the Niti Aayog and the Planning Commission before it have allowed for lateral entry. And some states such as Jharkhand are now experimenting with it as well.

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. Pushback is inevitable—but the Prime Minister would do well to remember the manifesto he laid before the secretaries back in 2014.

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