An examination that attracts over 7,50,000 aspirants and selects only 0.15 per cent is sure to be the most competitive in the world. India’s civil services examination carefully selects the most fertile minds in order to turn them into ideal bureaucrats. This is not to say that those who do not write the exam, based on their choice, are less bright. However, the Peter Principle — the rise to higher levels of incompetence — applies to many employees. Thus, lateral exit, too, is equally important.
Many young IAS officers often fall prey to the incompetency of the framework. Once inducted, postings and training seem to turn them into generalists rather than specialists. The training does not appear to focus on domain expertise and the knowledge required by jobs in today’s context. Even in the days of the ICS, officers could select a branch of governance after a period of service, such as the social sector or economics, so that they could specialise and perform better. That practice has since been abolished, as many feel an IAS officer needs to be a generalist. Moreover, the assurance of a secure career offers little incentive to bureaucrats to outperform others, when promotions and postings are hardly linked to merit and competence. This is where complacency creeps in and leads potential performers into a slump.
Civil servants have always held notable positions in government and even outside, as in inter-governmental organisations (IGOs). But some positions require specialists. So, why not bring in talented people from outside who may offer expertise, as happens in IGOs? To fill this gap, the government established the Industrial Management Pool (IMP) in 1959. The IMP envisaged hiring talented private-sector executives to man high- and mid-level managerial posts. Notable individuals like P.L. Tandon, Lovraj Kumar and V. Krishnamurthy joined. But with “positions meant for them” at stake, bureaucrats ensured the burial of the IMP. After only one hiring in 1959, the IMP came to a formal end in 1973.
There have been government commissions and reports advocating the lateral entry of specialists. The Sixth Pay Commission and Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) were unanimous on lateral entry. The ARC also recommended a paradigm shift from a career-based to a post-based approach to senior government jobs. It said that civil servants should compete with domain experts from outside for specific jobs. The ARC highlights that some good practices on performance appraisals may be adopted from the armed forces, which could aid in weeding out non-performers. In the armed forces, only 3 per cent of officers make it to the grade of brigadier and above — and promotions are based entirely on merit, which fuels excellence.
Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, the UK, the Netherlands and the US identify specific senior positions that are open to appointments from a wider pool of civil servants as well as private-sector executives with relevant domain experience. Lateral entrants bring their own work culture, and this enables renewal and adaptation in government organisations.
India is not new to lateral entry, and the benefits are there for all to see. The chief economic advisor to the Union government is traditionally a lateral entrant. There are illustrious examples of lateral entrants in administrative positions, such as Vijay Kelkar (finance and petroleum secretary), Montek Singh Ahluwalia (commerce and finance secretary) and Ram Vinay Shahi (ministry of power). In addition to domain knowledge, they had managerial skills and could get results in a government system.
Lateral entrants may not only bring specialised expertise, good practices and work culture, but they could also induce competition within the system. When civil servants are made to compete with outside talent, the lethargic attitude will diminish. So the prospects of lateral entry will always propel overall efficiency. However, the IAS lobby seems to think otherwise, which was reflected in the Civil Service Survey conducted in 2010. Fifty-four per cent of officers (on a consolidated basis) were in favour of lateral entry at the higher levels. However, IAS officers were less amenable to the idea. Only 43 per cent agreed.
Transparency and accountability are two important factors that should not be underplayed in hiring lateral entrants. Discretion on lateral entry may pave the way to charges of being “politically motivated”, which may degrade the system. For this, the ARC recommended the establishment of a central civil services authority to deal with issues concerning lateral entries. But the body, which would have ensured a robust and accountable system of lateral entry, is yet to come into existence.
Civil servants should also be encouraged to move out and work for different sectors on a short-term basis to enrich their knowledge and enhance their motivation and efficiency. Therefore, lateral exit is as important as lateral entry. This has the potential to raise the civil services from its slump.
The writer is secretary general of CUTS International. Rohit Singh of CUTS contributed to this article.