Published: The Economic Times, February 11, 2008

By George Cheriyan

INDIA is perhaps the only large country carrying the legacy of the Raj whereby an elite generalist civil service still dominates the top jobs in the country , but with little domain expertise in most cases. It is quite unfortunate that the Indian civil services has not been changed at all since independence and has retained most of its normative procedure especially in matters of selection. Albeit, the current recruitment selection procedure at the entry level is aimed towards selecting individuals with best calibre, and it is working well. However, over time, these bright people often get lost in the vortex of a generalist system, while the Peter Principle also applies to many. Times have changed and with it the complexities of demands on a person’s capabilities. This increased in the administration raising questions over effectiveness of services being delivered by them-civil servants.

This issue was highlighted by the Prime Minister of India at a recent gathering of alumni’s from ‘London School of Economics’ of the alumni from India and the region, where he urged the desirability of lateral entry into the senior Indian civil services. This remark has again led to a debate being ignited. While a section feels that the government can benefit by recruiting people at higher levels from non-government backgrounds, or what is called as the followers of one line of thought believe that time is ripe for lateral entry into civil services. While the other line of thought is that the traditional method of entry into the civil services is effective enough, and through additional expertise can be done through, which could be encouraged by providing training to the existing civil personnel.

It has often been felt that the bureaucracy of the day has tended to become impervious to new thinking and is unwilling to go beyond the orthodox way of functioning. In these circumstances, lateral entry could breathe some fresh air into the system. With healthy economic growth, there is a great need for expertise in the government from different fields. Lateral entry can bring, along with it, immaculate thinking and innovation, which are the basis for effective formulation and implementation of administrative reforms. In addition, the flexibility to induct people with competence and expertise will give the much required boost to the system and help in serving the people better.

Apparently, there will be enough suitable candidates interested in applying their skills on a much broader canvass, just as I G Patel and Manmohan Singh in the past and C Rangarajan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Ashok Lahiri, Shankar Acharya, Vijay Kelkar and R V Shahi in recent years. All these appointments were done on an ad hoc basis, based upon the capability of the individual.

However, a systemic effort at lateral entry was made in the past by the Government of India by creating an Industrial Management Pool (IMP), wherein successful private sector managers were attracted to specialised public sector jobs. This was in operation from 1957 to 1977, and we had several eminent people in command, such as P. L. Tandon, who left a multinational and took over the STC of India Ltd as its chairman. However, the IMP was abandoned due to arbitrariness of some appointments. Alas, it was a well thought out scheme, and rather than scrapping it, efforts could have been made to rectify thedrawbacks.

There have been various instances where it can be observed that the government has allowed successfully lateral entry into various departments like the departments of space, atomic energy, science and technology etc., which have been headed in the secretariat by experts in the respective fields. Taking these examples as time tested results (What results are you talking about?)it can be inferred that the lateral entry into civil services will help to improve overall effectiveness of public services.

However, we have to be careful in allowing lateral entries at a large scale, as in the IMP experiment, it could turn into one more political tool, if appointments are made arbitrarily. Another drawback of lateral entry is that there are no precise and proper guidelines regarding what actually amounts to ‘eligibility for appointment’ and ‘who can be considered to be an expert or having adequate knowledge.’ It is also felt that, if lateral entry is allowed it may become a determinant factor for the available pool of talent within the civil services as prospective candidates for senior posts.

It is important that government needs to study the issue carefully, including analyse the past failures, to make appropriate provisions to attract talent from the private sector, NGOs etc. to make the system effective and efficient. Ensuring that the selection procedure for lateral entry is transparent, speedy and immune from political pressures represents a huge challenge for government. Government could also appoint a group of eminent persons to select the right individuals. The long-term objective should be to give members of all services as well as the lateral entrant’s equal access to most medium and senior level posts.

(The author is secretary-general, CUTS)