There is some consternation and disapproval at the central government’s appointment of nine joint secretaries from outside the civil services. While the Opposition claims this policy of lateral entry is intended to push Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres into government, supporters see it as a game changer. So, is it a good move or should it be condemned? In the din of the election, this matter has not received adequate attention.

In the last decade, around 20% of the sanctioned positions for Indian Administrative Service officers have been vacant. If we accept that the sanctioned posts is the actual requirement, leaving over 20% vacancies means some government functions are suffering. Most citizens would agree that governance in India is not up to scratch. By one international rating, Indian bureaucracy is the worst in Asia. It has achieved this poor position through a combination of three main factors.

One, deficiency in the delivery of public services to the citizens. Needless to say this offers good opportunities for corruption. I would suggest that corruption is mainly a byproduct of a system that does not deliver. When government employs less people than are required, it is a given that governance will suffer.

Two, lack of domain expertise in the government. Secretaries exercising vast powers and framing policies generally have no domain expertise. At the start of the last century, domain expertise was at a much lower level compared to today. Hence, generalists were appointed to manage business and government. In the last five decades, domain expertise has grown with educational programmes dedicated to producing specialists. In business, most managers now are specialists in particular areas, while government continues the old practice of recruiting generalists.

Three, in the hierarchical system of bureaucracy, young officers are moulded to be satisfied with the current state of affairs. Any urge to innovate and change the system is generally curbed by the time they have spent a decade or so in service.

Unfortunately, India has not woken up to these shortcomings. Finance, information technology, transport or human resources are subjects that require specialised knowledge. In a government that lacks such specialised knowledge and experience, the delivery of services cannot cope with the rising aspirations of citizens for better governance and greater accountability and transparency.

A good option

One of the main reasons for permanent vacancies in IAS posts is that the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy has a ceiling on how many officers it can train. One may not find a better example of the tail wagging the dog than this. Instead of expanding the facility to train the required number of officers, the academy effectively determines how many officers there can be. The entire concept of having sanctioned posts is treated with disdain.

To overcome the academy’s limitations, lateral entry for senior positions is a good option. Recruiting domain specialists, in the 40-55 age group, will bring sharpness and expertise to the bureaucracy. The first batch of nine joint secretaries, though, is too small to make any real difference.

The government must start with at least 100 people and then increase their strength to around 10% of the sanctioned posts. Presently, the total number of sanctioned IAS officers is 6,500. This will ensure that the bureaucracy gets more domain expertise along with fresh thinking while retaining its basic character.

India’s current system of having generalists at all levels of government is flawed and partly responsible for poor governance. To give an analogy, a century ago people went to a general practitioner for treating all kinds of ailments. Today, we would approach an oncologist or a cardiologist or a paediatrician, depending on our need. Similarly, we must have specialists when it comes to decisionmaking in government and executing policies. Depending entirely on outside consultants is not desirable. As an example, it is evident that the lack of human resources expertise has led to a situation where the government performs very poorly in motivating, incentivising, evaluating and punishing its officials.

A key concern about lateral entry is that the selection process will not be transparent. The criterion for selection should be properly determined and experts brought in for each domain. There should be at least one interview with the shortlisted candidates that is telecast to the public. This would ensure the selected candidates are subjected to public scrutiny.

As for the argument that good candidates would not apply for lateral entry, there are many people in the 40-55 age group who have proved themselves and earned adequately, and have a strong desire to serve the country. Many of them might not have tried for the civil services in their 20s but would be happy to serve the nation after crossing 40. The government must be encouraged to tap this resource.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.

Also read: After lateral entry, 4 steps to make India’s bureaucracy more transparent, efficient and accessible

Lateral entry in bureaucracy: Is the government of India being privatised?