Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Jun 15, 2018
Reforming civil service? Begin with reforms in politics

Source Image: Deepak

Secretariat Building South Block

Argumentative Indians were given fresh fodder when the Government of India put out an advertisement inviting applications from professionals, desirous of lateral entry into India’s civil services at the level of joint secretary. Ten such positions are to be filled in the departments of Revenue, Financial Services, Economic Affairs, Agriculture, Road Transport & Highways, Shipping, Environment & Forests, New & Renewable Energy, Civil Aviation and Commerce.  Indian nationals who have domain expertise in the cited areas, are graduates from a recognised university, are 40 years of age, possess 15 years of experience and are willing to serve for a period of three years, extendable up to five, could apply electronically. Professionals with standout ability, whether from the private or public sectors, from international or multinational organisations, from the academia or research bodies, from state governments, union territories, PSUs, statutory organisations or autonomous bodies would be eligible.

Speaking on the matter, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh, stated that the Government believed that such entry will afford every Indian a chance to grow. “It’s an endeavour to get the best from whichever source available. It’s motivated with focus on allowing every Indian citizen a fair chance to ensure their growth depending on their potential,” he stated.

A joint secretary is the administrative head of a wing in a department of the Government of India and enjoys a fair degree of independence in his functioning and responsibility. Joint Secretaries are regarded as the cutting-edge of Government, assisting in policymaking as well as implementation of policies and programmes.  There are about 350 positions of joint secretary in Government of India.

"This is not a novel idea thought out by the current Government. Recommendations for lateral openings in the civil service are at least a decade old, endorsed by the Second Administrative Commission Report and the Fifth Pay Commission."

Additionally, lateral entry has happened in the past, comprising names such as Dr Manmohan Singh, Dr M S Ahluwalia, Dr Vijay Kelkar, Mr Nandan Nilekani and Dr Raghuram Rajan.  This is a concept also practiced by many countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia, Belgium and New Zealand. However, the novelty in this proposed recruitment lies in the advertisement, the level of the joint secretary and in the process of selection.

What advantages would such lateral admission hope to achieve? First, there is a numerical dimension to the decision. It is reported that there is a shortage of about 1,500 officers in the Indian Administrative Service; so lateral recruitment may somewhat help in mitigating the shortfall. More importantly, it is expected that it would shake up the bureaucracy through a healthy ‘organisational disruption’. The disruption is of the ‘bureaucratic status quoist monoculture’ and the injection of an alien management style that has been nurtured in a different soil, more adept at ‘out of the box’ approach. A fresh set of eyes shall look at governmental issues from the inside for the first time. This is likely to add a fresh perspective without the blinding effect that constant peering over several years generates. Furthermore, domain expertise of the expert synthesised with the multi-sectoral wisdom of the permanent civil service is most likely to produce a better cross-fertilised output. A salubrious rivalry among career civil servants and lateral entrants could spur positive results for both brands of officers. Misgivings, apprehensions and prejudices that may exist about governmental functioning in the outside ecosystem and non-governmental working in governmental circles may melt and engender appreciation and understanding that can stand the nation in good stead. Lastly, it may help rupture any nexus between some members of the bureaucracy and politicians that are alleged to have lately developed.

"The disadvantages that lateral entry can breed are equally strong. Whereas the level of joint secretary is high in the civil service hierarchy, directional changes nevertheless can only come from the top in a department."

All names that are mentioned above in regard to lateral entrants are of people who led departments from the top. Hence, while joint secretaries could bring about operational efficiency and some assistance in policy, it is doubtful whether they would be able to steer radical policy transformation on their own.  There is ground to believe that a short tenure of three years may not generate the kind of commitment the nation is looking for. Neither are such short tenures desirable in terms of accountability. A short-term entrant in the given situation may use the period to assiduously lobby or cultivate people on behalf of his or her parent organisation. Since the induction of ten officers is a mere three percent of the entire lot, it is likely that the governmental ecosystem coupled with a turf war may ensue between the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’ and could engulf the newcomers and neutralise the value that they were expected to add. Political parties that are in power may be tempted to use this opportunity and fix the process of recruitment for ideological infiltration that may shake the edifice of political neutrality on which the civil service is constructed. Given the comparatively modest compensation offered for the job, the best private sector managers may not be willing to forego their private sector salaries. They may even see a danger in their outmigration for a period of three to five years. This may do a disservice to their résumé arising out of prolonged ‘domain disconnect’. This may make them lose out in their highly dynamic and competitive parent sector.

There is no doubt that the civil services, dubbed as ‘suffocating’ and ‘slow and painful’ by a recent study, have been ripe for reform for quite some time. The move to begin that process, therefore, ought to be commended. However, this readiness to experiment with civil service reform without any attempt at instilling political discipline in the treatment of the civil service may turn out to be a mere window dressing. This is starkly manifest in the States where bulk of the work happens, given the federal nature of our Constitution. One of the primary causes of bureaucratic apathy, the reluctance to take decisions and lack of domain expertise is on account of frequent transfers, meaningless postings, sometimes in positions diametrically opposed to the officer’s expertise and pressures exerted on them to toe a particular line or ignore the purity of purpose. Over decades, this has worsened, leading to situations in certain States where tenures are an average of six months or less.

"The impact of such political environment on individuals has been dissimilar. Some have fallen by the wayside, some have become willing partners and others have taken refuge in self-preservation and survival."

The general informed perception now is that during the last decade-and-a-half, the maladies in the State have spread to Government of India. The objectives of efficiency, professionalism and commitment are served when the purity of the working environment is promoted by the political class. In a political atmosphere that has disincentivised learning and professionalism and has been progressively destructive of good governance, experiments such as these are destined to be still born. The much admired Sardar Patel, arguing the continuation of the All India Services, had remarked, “They are as good as we are”. Today, bureaucracy is as bad as politics is. If we want civil service reform, begin with reform in politics.

Dr Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at ORF in Mumbai. Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at ORF Mumbai. A former IAS officer, he is currently Chairman, Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and Officer on Special Duty overseeing the revision of Mumbai Development Plan 2034.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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