After selection of nine lateral entrants as joint secretaries in various ministries/departments on contract basis, the Narendra Modi government plans to extend such induction of private sector domain experts to the lower-level deputy secretary and director posts as well.
According to a report in this newspaper, the Department of Personnel & Training has been tasked with opening up as many as 400 posts — out of the 1,300-odd at these levels under the Central Staffing Scheme — for lateral hiring. If implemented, this would constitute the single biggest reform of public administration in independent India. The current administrative system, wherein top positions are manned by career bureaucrats having little specialised knowledge and recruited through a common civil services examination, has clearly outlived its utility.
A liberalised economy requires not generalists, but people who understand industrial processes and new technologies, taxation, finance, trade and investment in a dynamic, globalised setting. Even the old “steel frame” model of governance needs revisiting in favour of more nimble, entrepreneurial public service organisations focusing on performance and delivery by incorporating private sector management practices.
The right approach today would be to fill top/senior government positions by selecting subject matter specialists and posting them in departments for which they are best-suited. The nine joint secretary-level lateral hires short-listed by the Union Public Service Commission in April were for specific departments: Agriculture, civil aviation, commerce, economic affairs, environment, financial services, renewable energy, road transport and shipping.
Alternatively, the “generalists” can be forced to turn “specialists” through mid-career professional development programmes or extended tenures in particular departments/fields. Either way, the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach to public administration needs to be dispensed with and is, indeed, an unfinished task of reforms and liberalisation. It also fits into the “minimum government, maximum governance” promise on which Prime Minister Modi first rode to power in 2014. There can be no better means to achieving that goal than by deepening expertise and expanding the scope of lateral appointments in government.
A couple of cautionary notes are, however, in order. The first is the process of selecting candidates for lateral entry, which has to be transparent, robust and credible. Filling 400 posts without conducting formal competitive exams can invite legal challenges, more so if they are seen to be at the expense of the “natural” All-India or Central Civil Services claimants to these jobs. Second, if lateral appointments become the order of the day — which they should — what will happen to reservations for communities that are already under-represented in the upper rungs of government? Striking a balance between merit and ensuring adequate representation for disadvantaged communities is necessary even in a regime of lateral entry.