The Central government has just set the ball rolling for the induction of the executive of a private firm into government through the lateral entry process. Though it is still early to divine if a new outlook on governance is unfolding, some reflection on lateral entry into government is in order.
The permanent civil services in developing countries are long considered the source of stability and continuity in societies encountering multiple forms of centrifugal and disintegrating forces. A perennial problem for developing countries is the steep learning curve its civil servants face to cope with new social and technological challenges.
The lateral entry of professionals from outside the civil services into government has long been considered a possible remedy for the apparent weakness of the bureaucratic setup. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) and the sixth Central Pay Commission (CPC) commented favourably, albeit with some caution, on lateral entry.
It is argued that lateral entries enable the political leadership to bring into the fold of government the critical domain knowledge it may need. The emergence of a dynamic private sector has prompted a rethink about standard practices of governance. The managerial practices and delivery efficiencies that the private sector is compelled to constantly develop, modify and refine, in order to remain competitive, hold important lessons for governments. In the past, public administration drew heavily upon systems and practices developed by the armed forces for use in civilian administration. The private sector’s experiences have begun to play a similar role vis-a-vis modern-day governments.
International practices regarding lateral entries differ widely. As noted by the ARC, countries such as Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the US have a policy of making appointments to identified senior positions in government from a wider pool, comprising all civil servants and applicants from the private sector possessing the requisite domain knowledge. The bulk of the appointments, nevertheless, has historically been from the civil services. Outsiders recruited comprised no more than 10 to 14 per cent in recent times. India, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Spain, on the other hand, follow a more closed system. Civil servants recruited at entry levels rise over the years to man top administrative posts. Lateral entries are isolated and sporadic. The strength of the latter system was the prevalence of a common civil service value system, esprit de corps and a heightened awareness regarding capacity building within the services, which proved valuable in the long run.
Even in the heyday of centralised governance and pervasive bureaucracy, the Indian government has been known to selectively bring into its fold outstanding professionals in key areas, such as finance, industry, petroleum and power. These professionals held important executive positions as secretaries to the government — positions the civil services are most reluctant to cede to lateral entrants. Outside professionals in advisory positions in government have been more common and are received by the bureaucracy with a relatively higher degree of tolerance. Outside professionals have been welcomed in niche areas, in which expertise within the government is known to be absent or inadequate. These are usually functions, policies and programmes that arise all too suddenly, or are considered immediately important, needing new systems and approaches for effective, time-bound completion.
The approach to lateral entry from the private sector into government, however, has remained somewhat undefined, making it difficult for top private-sector professionals to make a clear career choice. It is never reassuring for a lateral entrant to be compelled to deal with an entrenched and unhelpful bureaucracy, whose labyrinthine ways can test the acumen of even the very best in business. Add to it the relatively short time the lateral entrant has to produce results, and you have on hand a very frustrated individual. The tenures of most lateral entrants in the higher echelons of administration have not been a spectacular success, barring certain conspicuous exceptions.
Even if these transitional problems are overcome, another problem — a perceptional one — haunts the outsider. Since no established system of recruiting outsiders to senior posts in government is in place, the selection process is often ad hoc, driven largely by the political executive. The lateral entrant is thereafter branded as “so-and-so’s person”, and is as much feared as envied for her “connections”.
The ministry of personnel polled its officers some time ago about their opinion on lateral entry into the higher civil services. Fifty-three per cent endorsed it as useful. Among the officers who were against it, a sizeable number was of those initially recruited through the reserved category. The fear generally expressed was about losing top-level posts to outsiders, when competition among insiders itself was intense, and becoming more so with each passing day. In private conversations, several senior officers scoff at the idea that there is anything in policy implementation and governance that cannot be effectively handled by the civil services, given a chance. They point to faulty selection processes and political patronage that often sully the choice of officers for top positions. When officers so chosen predictably fail, the entire civil service is blamed for lacking in competence. Most would not like positions in government given away to outsiders without first establishing if there was capacity within the civil services to discharge those functions. A continuous process of capacity building within the government, it is argued, can easily equip civil servants to meet all the emerging challenges of the modern age.
The abrupt induction of outsiders at the top policymaking levels, it was hinted, could produce potentially disruptive consequences for the system. Apart from this, there is scepticism that the Indian private sector is so sophisticated and skills-rich that it can meet the burgeoning need for high-level professionals by the Indian state.
The ARC and CRC have mooted a systemic approach, in place of the present ad hocism, to select, from the open market, suitable personnel for top echelons of government. Certain positions at high levels — additional secretaries to the government of India and above — requiring superior technical and domain knowledge can be identified and placed outside the cadre strength. These posts can be advertised, for which officers of the government as well as outside professionals can be allowed to compete and the best can then be chosen. Noting that there was “ almost universal acknowledgement of the need to induct outstanding skills and talent from outside the government to staff some positions in government departments,” the ARC cautioned that, “de-novo recruitment at any particular level may, in the Indian context, carry certain risks.”
The risk, apart from anything else, is of unknown consequences. The civil services are, therefore, going to remain the mainstay of the Indian state for a long time, with the lateral entrants providing the icing on the cake.
The writer is former secretary, ministry of personnel