The primary focus of the civil services created by the British Raj was on law and order and revenue collection.
Govt’s move to allow lateral entry from the private sector has re-opened a decades-old debate. While the government believes this will infuse new energy, bureacrats remain wary.
The Narendra Modi government’s decision to open the higher echelons of power to talented and motivated citizens with expertise in domain areas has come in for praise and criticism from several quarters. On the one hand, it was alleged that the NDA government was aiming at recruiting ideologically affiliated individuals as also undermining the reservation policy, on the other, it was felt the move would bring in a breath of fresh air into a moth-eaten, moribund and conservative bureaucracy and thereby accelerate the development agenda of the government.
The primary focus of the civil services created by the British Raj was on law and order and revenue collection. While the post-Independence transformation brought about major changes in the training and orientation of the civil service, the colonial hangover of the bureaucrat being the “maai baap” continues to persist in the mindscape of a sizable chunk of the populace.
In an era of expertise and specialisation, it is anachronistic to imagine that an individual can be considered equally good in dealing with coal and culture simply because he or she has cleared an examination decades back. Of course, there have been honourable exceptions, of leaders in the civil service who have displayed their vision and far-sightedness in varied disciplines but the general practice has been one of the learning on the job.
While civil services officers have generous study-leave and training provisions including in foreign countries to acquire specialisation, the criterion of seniority and not performance or expertise for promotions has only served to further mediocrity in governance. The outcome is a bureaucratic structure by and large unable to keep pace with technological and conceptual changes. Lateral entry, on the other hand, infuses fresh blood, vigour and thinking, which can change the dynamics of governance.
Moreover, these domain experts also do not have the compulsion of succumbing to pressures, political or otherwise, for the sake of promotions or prize postings, transfers etc. The resistance to change has resulted in the bureaucracy becoming decadent even in developing countries such as Japan and France.
At a time when governance is diversifying and expanding into critical areas of development including environment, climate change, energy, surface transport et al, isn’t it time to bring in people with domain expertise not just for implementation but also for realistic policy formulation?
For a long time now, offices of the Secretary, Space as also Department of Science and Technology have been reserved for scientists of repute and both sectors have witnessed huge achievements. The success of ISRO has been credited as much to non-intervention of bureaucracy as to the genius of the scientists.
It does not require much common sense to realise that a media professional would do a far better job at the helm of affairs than a bureaucrat when it comes to say an institution like Prasar Bharati. The same applies to other disciplines whether it be healthcare, technology, finance or law. With their deep insights and experience in the administrative structure, the civil services officers are better equipped to ensure that the rules and norms of governance are scrupulously followed in a transparent manner to ensure that the development process percolates down to the grassroot level.
Lateral inductions of sectoral leaders has been attempted before even by previous governments whether it be Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Vijay Kelkar or Nandan Nilekani and the professionals did a wonderful job but the difference is that this is really the first time it has been proposed in an organised way at the joint secretary level. It also needs to be seen that this is not a wholesale attempt to destabilise the system but an experimental pilot scheme that needs time for assessment and analysis.
While these newly inducted officers would have creative freedom, they would be guided in the process by an experienced machinery such as the Central Secretariat Service, right from the section officer level. They would be autonomous but not independent republics on their own. There will be checks and balances. It would not be a free for all.
Given the challenges and opportunities, there will be enough takers but it needs to be worked out as to who would be involved in the selection process, what would the modus operandi be to ensure that this much awaited move does not get embroiled in controversy and thereby defeat the very purpose for which it has been conceived — that of bringing excellence in administration. It is equally important to ensure that these officers get a free hand, subject to reasonable restrictions, in creatively formulating and executing policies that have the potential to change the ground situation for the better.
Similar experiments have been successfully executed in the West including Commonwealth countries such as UK, Australia and New Zealand. The Americans also have displayed a penchant for domain expertise. In the political arena, the Aam Aadmi Party had also favoured induction of professionals in key administrative positions.
As for the growth prospects, in an age of uncertainty in the corporate world, professionals who are used to hire and fire policies would be looking more for work satisfaction rather than job stability. A three to five year tenure is certainly not a bad proposition and an innings in government would certainly be an advantage for their future prospects in the private sector, going by the large scale post retirement recruitment of senior government doctors, bureaucrats and armed forces officers in the corporate world.