The perennial generalist vs specialist debate

Half-baked impractical ideas such as lateral entry should not be encouraged. The room for abuse is enormous


TSR Subramanian | June 26, 2015

The specialist vs. generalist debate in India’s civil services resurfaces periodically. One has seen a chief of the electricity board, an excellent engineer who managed his power plants and transmission systems extremely well, totally clueless in matters relating to power policy. One has also seen a first-rate irrigation chief engineer taking over as secretary of the irrigation department and floundering from day one on administrative issues. On the other hand, there have been many scientists, long abdicating their scientific work, turn into fine administrators and policymakers. It is not uncommon to find IAS secretaries, with excellent reputation, often unable to find their feet in ‘alien’ departments. There is no hard and fast rule in such matters; the suitability and background of each officer for a post is more relevant than his label.

Having said that, it has often been found suboptimal to have a specialist to head a department – say the ministry of energy or ministry of power. By definition, all specialists focus on their own specific fields, and each technical field has a hundred branches. An expert on electrical transmission may not have better advisory capability in the field of solar or hydrogen energy than a non-engineer with an open mind; in most fields rapid development has taken place in the past decades – our expert has learnt his specialty years back, and may be out of date even in his own specialisation. The generalist is not afraid of asking questions, consults many experts before a position is taken – more often than not the specialist tends to take the view that he knows all in his field, and often shuns other opinion.

The author of this piece had occasion recently to prepare a study for the government on two separate fields – environment, and post office reforms. In the area broadly referred to as ‘environment and climate change’, it was an eye-opener to find at least a hundred separate fields of specialisation; often experts and agencies working in one may not be aware even of the existence of many others. Thus, forestry itself has any number of branches – if you add technical, commercial and social forestry issues, the fields of specialisation get multiplied. The arena of pollution – air and water – itself accommodates hundreds of expert fields. The committee that did the study would not have really been able to take a holistic view by talking just to one expert, however renowned – they met over a hundred, to get the picture. Likewise, the issue of postal reform covered a variety of fields – telecom spectrum, optical fibre connectivity, Unique Identity issues, insurance for life / accident / crops, logistics for e-commerce, to mention a few; doubtless, each of these would open up into many more specialised fields of expertise. Thus only an officer with intimate knowledge of the system, with decades of background and experience (needless to say with some imagination, insight and innovation), could bring together different experts to tackle each element of a new strategy. These illustrate the fallacy of repeatedly referring to need to replace ‘generalists’ with ‘specialists’.

The management of public affairs, as practised in India, is a highly specialised field; practitioners have to learn this profession, by working in the field – the university or training institutions will not prepare a person to deal with politicians, crooks, public grievances, riots, floods, policy-making in hundred fields, dealing with the police and the judiciary – none of these is taught in engineering schools or in MBA courses. Robust commonsense, coupled with a sense of dedication, pride, professionalism, and experience from years of working as a field officer and in the secretariat are the key requirements to make an administrator.

Another metaphor may be drawn to make comparison – should a senior citizen, with many ailments not unusual for his age, have only one ‘expert’ doctor as his consultant, or should he rely on a ‘generalist’ doctor? This is not a hypothetical question. A person with high BP and diabetes (standard for most Indians), a weak spine (not unusual for government servants, particularly for those who have one), and poor lung capacity (normal for Delhi citizens, indeed of any city in India) – should he take advice directly from six different experts, without the assistance of a generalist all-round doctor, to interpret, moderate and balance the frequently conflicting ‘expert advice’? This is the role that the professional generalist, with two to three decades of experience is able to play in the system.

The question then may be asked that when the minister himself is a generalist, why one needs a secretary who is also a generalist. The minister is an expert in politics, manoeuvring public opinion, making wild promises, generally shrewd but weak in comprehension of complex issues; without being overly uncharitable, his main management task is to ensure that the ruling party’s political image remains intact; that in most cases, the special interest groups (aka ‘mafias’) that he is beholden to is benefitted; and that everything he does will ensure a good chance of his re-election. Do not be fooled by appellations – our ministers, especially in the states, do not have the same IQ or probity or experience quotient displayed by their counterparts in developed countries; the minister is just not cut out to be an administrator.

The UPSC is a key institution, one of the few which has maintained pristine standards; none has seriously questioned its process of selecting the best candidates for the civil services. The IAS is selected through a competitive examination – not on pass or fail basis; the system is designed to test overall comprehension, analytical ability, and optimal approach to situations, rather than specialisation; it would not make a difference whether a ‘generalist’ or a ‘professional’ is inducted into the service.

The second administrative reforms commission had recommended ‘lateral’ recruitment at the additional secretary and secretary levels. Many, at first sight, may see this as logical. The fact is that even now, at the government of India level, the secretary-level posts are evenly divided among all-India service officers, and experts in their own fields – most of them spending their career in government, rising to the top. Having worked in the system at the secretariat, the ‘expert’ may not have field experience (so essential to any policymaker or administrator whose recommendations / decisions would have impact on the citizen); however, he has understood the governmental system, which itself is highly specialised. Thus an Abdul Kalam or a Kasturirangan, who contributed during their time to governance, were both products of the system; the likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia also were experts in their own field, but they thrived within the environment of the governmental milieu. It is a moot question whether an outside expert brought in, so to speak cold-turkey, to a line-department like telecom or agriculture or commerce would be able to hit the deck running – he would take at least a couple of years to understand the way decisions are examined and taken within the system, the operation of various institutional factors such as party politics, the judicial system, the  parliament, the CAG and other statutory and constitutional agencies, not to speak of the impact of media or the NGOs or the social media on decision making. This is not to belittle or downplay the role of experts – they are of vital importance to provide high quality technical inputs, and raise the quality of approach to complex issues. Do not downgrade them by asking them to be ‘pen-pushing’ babus.

Do not demean our talented experts to waste their time dealing with inconsequential parliamentary questions. Equally, do not demean the senior professional civil servant, chosen from among the best talent available in India, with two-or-three-decades of relevant experience – he is generally irreplaceable.

One other significant point needs to be highlighted. India has borrowed its administrative structure from Whitehall – not from the US, where each minister is allowed to choose his own senior advisers, who leave their private jobs as experts to join the minister’s team for a five-year stint; in the US they are team members, and identify their personal interests solely with that of the minister. In India such a concept will have disastrous impact – will make a corrupt system infinitely worse, in most situations. In India the governance pattern is ‘adversarial’ – the secretary’s role is to render dispassionate non-partisan advice; he is also responsible, as a career functionary, for the propriety of the advice he tenders. Besides, Indian administration does not have the checks and balances that US has, where most proposals are looked at through committees at different levels. Only a person who does not understand the basics, as well as the complex nature of Indian administrative practice, would trust short-term advisers at the highest levels, who will exercise authority without responsibility. Lateral entry will spell disaster, particularly in states where methods will be found to induct persons with limited expertise but dubious integrity, to loot the system. Again, before lateral entry is considered, there needs to be a clear understanding of what the current gaps are, and how – if at all – lateral entry will fill them.

The present system of postings and transfers is frequently irrational, especially in the states. However, it needs to be ensured that at the additional secretary/ secretary level it will be unwise and counterproductive to post a career civil servant, who does not have previous experience in that broad field. At the level of secretary, there is no time to learn the broad milieu and general features of that particular field, indeed its ‘lingo’; there is no place for people with no previous exposure. Career planning for the services should ensure that the officer posted at the secretary level should have done at least one assignment at deputy secretary / director / joint secretary levels, to give him a sense of familiarity, as also to ensure that he is fully effective from day one.

No one questions the need for reform of the civil service, which ought to be a continuous process, as in every other sphere. Politicisation of the civil services has taken roots. The level of corruption in many civil services has reached worrisome, if not alarming, levels – though miniscule compared to the political arena. The morale of the civil servants themselves is low, particularly in the states. Some, who have little understanding of Indian governance, have even asked whether the time has come to abolish the all-India services.

Don’t throw the baby with the bath water. What is needed is reform, not scrapping the system. Civil servants should be enabled to perform with freedom, efficacy and accountability. For this, one should reach out to tackle the core problems, not just tinker with peripheral issues. The necessary political will has to be summoned, if such a thing were possible, to tone up and cleanse the civil services.

The core problems afflicting the civil services stem from larger political causes, relating to unstable state governments, rampant corruption in the states and operation of mafias, and an insecure political executive exploiting the public servant for narrow personal ends. Politics having become the most lucrative business in the country, with few checks and controls, there is compulsion for the minister or political leader to tempt or coerce civil servants to collude with him for mutual benefit. Frequent transfers, ministers hand-picking the officials to work with them and sidelining of efficient but honest officers are common now, especially in the states.  An array of weapons is used: arbitrary transfers, control over the annual character roll entry, and unleashing of departmental inquiries to keep civil servants off balance and submissive, prodding them to collusion. These are the key issues which need to be addressed, for a meaningful reform. 

The main weaknesses in our governance structure do not emanate from the civil services. Currently, the real problems lie elsewhere. The political scene is unprincipled, unscrupulous, and untrammelled – there is no effective check against excesses and delinquency of the political executive. Political reforms should be highest on the agenda. This is possible only if there is significant election reform. Judicial reform, about which much is not yet talked about, also ranks in the forefront. One should avoid the temptation to look for ‘easy’ solutions, barking up the wrong tree – since the civil servant is the easiest target to hit. Half-baked impractical ideas such as lateral entry should not be encouraged – the room for abuse is enormous.

Subramanian is a former cabinet secretary.

(The article appears in the June 16-30, 2015 issue)



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