The Centre’s decision to make possible “lateral entry” of “talented and motivated Indian nationals” into the senior levels of the bureaucracy is a much-needed reform. In an advertisement issued on Sunday, the Department of Personnel and Training invited applications from outstanding individuals, including those from the private sector, for appointment to joint secretary-level posts. Although it is an initial offering of 10 posts in areas such as financial services, agriculture, environment, renewable energy, transport and revenue, the move could be a significant step towards fulfilling the longstanding need for domain specialists in positions crucial to policy-making and implementation of government schemes.
The UPSC system does draw people from diverse educational backgrounds — doctors, engineers, graduates in the social sciences, humanities and management studies — into the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). But the IAS’s scheme of posting and transfer values general competency more than specialised skills. This means that by the time a bureaucrat attains seniority, she has served in so many departments that her original set of skills and expertise has attenuated considerably. A generalist was suited to the times when the state was the nerve centre of the economy. But as the state started yielding to the market, it became apparent that a senior bureaucrat must not only shepherd a complicated government apparatus, she must also regulate the private sector. Moreover, today, the complexities of policy-making are such that senior civil servants are required to have in-depth knowledge of the areas they administer. Reading the fine print today is cardinal not only in sectors that have come to the fore in the past 25 to 30 years — telecom, environment, renewable energy, climate change, intellectual property rights — it’s also essential in the more traditional realms of administration such as finance, commerce, aviation or health.
The need for specialisation, in fact, had been pointed out as far back as 1965 by the first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC). That imperative was amplified by the Surinder Nath Committee and the Hota Committee in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, the Second ARC envisaged a shift from a “career-based approach to a post-based approach” for top-tier government jobs. In the past, governments have occasionally inducted talent from outside the bureaucracy for administrative purposes. In the 1950s and 1960s, non-bureaucrats such as Lovraj Kumar, P L Tandon and V Krishnamurthy were appointed to senior administrative positions. In 2002, former BSES CMD, R V Shahi, was made power secretary. And the UPA government appointed Nandan Nilekani to head the UIDAI. But in general, governments have tried to meet the need for experts by appointing consultants. The Second ARC’s recommendation of an “institutionalised and transparent process for lateral entry at both the Central and state levels” had so far gone unheeded. Sunday’s move could be the first step towards addressing this imperative.