Why the Indian Foreign Service has a quality and quantity dilemma

South Block has been aware of “development” for some years as the quality of recruits has dipped, appreciably.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Published:August 4, 2016 2:47 pm
IFS, IFS officers, indian foreign service, IFS 2016, parliament, indian diplomats, indian IFS officer, indian civil service The South Block building (Express photo by Renuka Puri)

A parliamentary panel this week has said something that has been known to most in the diplomatic community for quite some time now.

As the panel expressed concern over the “deterioration” in the quality of recruits to the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), it said that unlike in the past, when only those with the highest ranks in civil services exam were taken into IFS, it is a “matter of surprise” that even low-ranked candidates are able to enter the service. “This development is both a symptom and a reason for the erosion of prestige in the IFS,” said the committee.

South Block has been aware of “development” for some years as the quality of recruits has dipped, appreciably. However, it was hard-pressed since it was also concerned about the “quantity” of officers available to conduct diplomatic activities. At present, the numbers are as follows: as against a sanctioned strength of 912 there are only 770 IFS officers.

The challenge posed by the quality and quantity problems is the result of something which almost all government services are facing: that there are now better career avenues in the non-governmental sector which many people choose to opt for.

While that argument exists and has led to the Indian Foreign Service being one of the smallest in the world– as compared to its size and the growing global profile — what has not been addressed is the issue of “lateral entry” into the IFS.

While the idea of lateral service has been floating around – and has been talked of at umpteen seminars and conferences for at least a decade now – there has been hardly any serious attempt so far to do anything about it.

The IFS zealously guards its turf, and does not give any crucial posting to an officer from any other service. A railway service official is posted for executing the railway projects in a neighbouring country, or a commerce ministry official is posted to a foreign country where trade negotiations are complex, or a defence official has been posted for defence transactions in a major supplier country. But, hardly anyone has been given the opportunity to grow into the service, and for lack of opportunities , these officials, even if they want to grow in the IFS have had to leave the IFS and return to their parent service. Thus, these officers “on deputation” can hardly be called as “lateral entry”.

Two, there is hardly any attempt to encourage those from academia or the think-tanks to be absorbed and given key positions in the MEA. Unlike in the US, where the “revolving door” system is a fairly advanced way of getting outside perspectives and to promote “out of the box” thinking within the Establishment – the Indian bureaucracy does not think of very highly of the think-tanks and academics – when it comes to practising diplomacy.

Three, most outsiders – from think tanks or academia – who would like to serve in the IFS would like to have postings of their choice. That means, the meatier postings where the political activity is high and that would mean the IFS officers left to choose from the crumbs left. No IFS wants to be left in that position.

Given these challenges, the government needs to think hard about how to deal with the quality and quantity dilemma in the IFS because the country deserves better.

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