The ivory tower and the winds outside

Lateral entry – controversy vs. facts

DS Saksena | June 30, 2018


#IAS   #bureaucracy   #administrative reforms   #Lateral entry   #UPSC   #Manmohan Singh  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

The recent DoPT advertisement inviting applications for 10 posts of joint secretaries has generated a disproportionate amount of controversy. The government has justified the lateral induction of experts at such a senior level as an attempt to recruit specialists to give momentum to its reform agenda while the opposition has condemned the move as an attempt to plant its favourites in the bureaucracy. IAS officers are peeved; they see lateral induction as a move designed to shatter their long-standing dominance of the bureaucracy. 
 
The truth is more mundane. Looking at the large number of posts (462) of joint secretaries in various ministries, induction of 10 specialists would not make any great difference in the composition or performance of the government. Rather, the number of joint secretary-level posts in the entire government setup is humungous; the income-tax department alone has 700 posts of joint secretary and above level which would make these ten posts look like a drop in the ocean. Also, the induction of experts at senior levels has a long history; lateral inductees like Manmohan Singh and IG Patel have rendered yeoman service to the nation.
 
If we accept the proposition that the bureaucracy can and should perform better, then lateral entry of domain experts at senior levels is a welcome step. Instances are not lacking where officers of the organised services believe themselves to be omniscient and refuse to update their knowledge. Moreover, IAS officers are shuffled in various ministries, which prevents them from gaining expertise in any particular field. In any case, most IAS officers are unwilling to come to the centre which entails the loss of perks and creature comforts enjoyed in their state postings. This statement is borne out by the fact that most states are not providing central deputation reserve of IAS officers to the central government. If IAS officers are more interested in collectors’ and commissioners’ posts – which carry real power – then so be it. Central ministries would do well to be staffed by domain experts.
 
The main argument of those opposing lateral induction is that someone who had not worked as a collector or sub-collector would have scant knowledge of administration. Suffice it to say that a collector’s main job is collection of land revenue, an insignificant stream of revenue and not knowing the intricacies of land revenue collection would not come in the way of efficient administration. Another argument being made is that such senior appointments should be through the UPSC. This argument also falls flat because as of date most senior bureaucratic appointments are made through the committee of secretaries – a construct of the bureaucracy designed to bypass UPSC.
 
However, a warning is in order. Given the current bureaucratic ethos of delay and inaction, induction of even the best domain experts would not change the situation on the ground. Every significant action of a bureaucrat has to meet the approval of a host of agencies which at best results in delay and more often than not in the stymieing of new initiatives. The 4Cs – the CBI, the CVC, the CAG and the courts –deeply scrutinise all bureaucratic decisions with the benefit of hindsight; serious damage follows should innovativeness goes wrong. On the other hand, inaction is rarely punished; a number of reasons are always available for not taking any action. Apparently, in the eyes of the government results are less important than procedure.  
 
Most government schemes fail because they are not implemented on the ground by lower level functionaries who treat government employment as a sinecure. Higher-ups gloss over failed schemes by preparing glowing reports for the government. Lack of accountability is of such a high order that no action is taken even after the most abject failures. Every bureaucrat gets at least a 9/10 rating regardless of his lack of performance. It seems that no one ever thought of having a realistic performance appraisal system, for example, by grading a department’s performance and distributing the department’s marks amongst its officers. 
 
Such systemic shortcomings obviously cannot be tackled by lateral entrants, who would feel hamstrung by the unprofessional atmosphere prevailing in the bureaucratic world. Additionally, given these constraints, lateral entrants may not be able to deliver the results expected of them unless they are put in advisory roles which would negate the very reason for their recruitment. Till the time accountability is seriously enforced and the fear of God is put in government employees there can be no improvement in government functioning even with the best outside talent.  
 
The decision to bring in outside experts reflects the government’s disenchantment with the IAS cadre. Significantly, in the last four years, out of 260 appointments at the joint secretary-level more than 100 posts went to the non-IAS officers. Off the cuff, one may say that intricacies in ministries like power, atomic energy, telecom, finance and defence flummox non-expert bureaucrats resulting in inaction and delayed decisions. For example, the perpetual tug of war between the forces and defence ministry bureaucrats has adversely affected procurement of badly needed arms and ammunition. The unhealthy relations between service officers and bureaucrats were brought to the country’s notice by the unseemly spat between the defence ministry and General VK Singh. It is a matter of record that in the interest of the nation, the supreme court had to mediate between the two adversaries. Perhaps, more understanding bureaucrats would not have allowed the crisis to blow up. 
 
It goes without saying that the government is entitled to the best talent in the country. Many brilliant individuals join IITs or medical colleges after class twelve, should such persons be denied the opportunity of joining government service only because they did not opt for it in the beginning? In countries like the USA there is a free flow of individuals from government to business and vice-versa, without any noticeable ill effects. The decision to bring in outside experts cannot be faulted only because it interferes with the career progression of officers of organised services. Bureaucracy should not function in an ivory tower; winds from the outside often bring welcome change.
 
Finally, if the government is serious about bringing in domain experts in significant numbers, then it would need to identify the areas in which such experts would function as also the inter-se relations of experts with members of the organised services. Given the shrill controversy generated by the proposed lateral induction, one can only hope that the current initiative does not remain stillborn but grows with time and provides much required fresh blood to our bureaucracy. 
 
Saksena, an IRS officer of 1979 batch, retired as principal chief commissioner of income-tax, Mumbai.

(The article appears in July 15, 2018 edition)

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