Lateral entry will not work; need to overhaul the IAS, says Santosh Mehrotra

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Updated: April 19, 2019 4:27:20 PM

Lateral Entry in Civil Services: The IAS will not allow outsiders to function efficiently in the government. Instead of inducting private experts, the government should groom civil servants into specialists.

Lateral Entry in Civil Services: Economist Santosh Mehrotra says it will change nothing.

Lateral Entry in UPSC: The recent selection of nine private sector professionals as joint secretaries in the Government of India has triggered heated debates. Though specialists had been inducted earlier also, this is first such large-scale exercise by a government. Experts are divided on the benefits that will accrue from the decision. Economist Santosh Mehrotra, who himself has worked with the Planning Commission at secretary level during the UPA government, says the move will not change anything. Edited Excerpts:

Q: Your initial thoughts on the government’s decision to induct 9 joint secretaries through lateral entry.

A: It’s a good thing but it is too little, too late. Too little because these are less than 10 people. Second , I have seen the commentary by the retired and serving officers in the bureaucracy, they are mostly opposed to it. They don’t even like whatever too little, too late that is being done by the government. I have cited this thing in my forthcoming book on Planning Commission and the Future of Planning, when this government had announced it.

In my book, I essentially make the argument that we can’t run a large, extremely diverse, rapidly diversifying economy like India which still faces serious development challenges on the strength of generalist bureaucrats. The 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) had recognized this problem. This needs to change quickly since sustained GDP growth for poverty reduction requires a very competent and also agile bureaucracy – able to respond to rapid changes, which is inevitable in a globally integrated economy.

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Q: Is the present system of recruitment and promotion of generalist officers in such a large number an efficient system?

A: They are not just generalists but the other issue is that these IAS officers are not promoted on the basis of output given by them but on the basis of the input, the number of years spent in the service. In China the bureaucratic incentive system has been designed to perform. The Centre and upper levels of government allocate tasks to their subordinates, which guides the provision of public goods. The bureaucracy is then evaluated based on their set of tasks – economic construction or social development. Responsibility contracts have detailed quantitative targets to be achieved within a given period of time with rewards and penalties depending on the performance. There is nothing comparable in India.

In India promotions are determined mainly on the basis of seniority, and the Annual Confidential Reports, which are essentially a view of your superior on your performance, that itself is a reflection of an officer’s relationship with his or her superior. These problems were recognized by the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission, the 10th Report on Personnel. The outcomes of policies and programmes matter much more in promotion in China.

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To make matters worse, frequent transfers exacerbate the lack of domain knowledge. With frequent transfers it is impossible to attribute success if a bureaucrat undertakes a risky project in India. Longer tenures in China ensure it is easy to attribute success to individual leaders.

I discussed this subject in an earlier Cambridge University Press book, in the book – Policies to Achieve Inclusive Growth in India.

And this situation cannot be solved through lateral entry, because in case of lateral entry, the functioning of these people, the lateral entrants, will be circumscribed by 97% other joint secretaries, let alone other additional secretaries and secretaries.

Q: The idea was to cut through the red-tapism. Is this not the first step in the direction of cutting the red tape?

A: It can’t cut the red-tapism. They will be subjected to same procedures. Once you are inside, it’s the same procedure. It’s a procedure driven bureaucracy. ‘Not making a mistake’ is very important to a civil servant’s promotion.

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Q: Whether it is difficult for outside experts to work with government Babus?

A: I know it from personal experience. I was in the planning commission, I was there for 8 years. I was appointed at the highest rank possible in the civil services, the rank of secretary to the government of India. And still I was constantly circumscribed by people below me, let alone by the people at my rank.

As a generalist our bureaucrats don’t have the intellectual courage to push back against political masters. I was a lateral entry in the government but if I disagreed with by bosses in the planning commission then I told him straightaway; but always based on empirical evidence. You have to have courage and strength on the basis of your domain knowledge which the political leaders and the generalist bureaucrats do not usually have.

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Q: But this is not for the first time that outside experts have been recruited in the government through lateral entry.

A: Yes! Of course in the past lateral entries have taken place. Montek Singh Ahluwalia , Vijay Kelkar Arvind Virmani, Ashok Lahiri Pronab Sen, there were so many people recruited through lateral entry.

Q: What is your experience? Why IAS officers don’t like entry of outside professionals in the government?

A: Usually, IAS officers will make your life difficult. But people like me and Pronab Sen have their own stature and people like us are protected by our bosses because we were appointed by them and they know our qualification and what can we contribute so they gave us importance.

But IAS officers don’t like us because they feel they have lost one vacancy. They also feel that we can publicly contradict them. If you contradict them then they will retort by saying something like that they spent 10 years in the field. But if that was 20 years ago, India has completely changed in those 20 years.

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Q: Will it bring about some change in the working of the government?

A: Nothing will change. It’s good that they have been doing it but they should take this figure of 3 per cent to 30 per cent. But the generalist bureaucrats won’t allow this. Suppose the government is able to take it to 30 per cent even then 70 per cent officers will be from the services.

Q: You talked about completely overhauling the civil services. What is your recommendation?

A: In my book: The Planning Commission – Its Past and Future, Cambridge University Press, I have argued that you will have to change the IAS itself. How will you change them? Usually they have a service of 35 years on an average.

I suggest that newly recruited IAS officers should be kept in the field to gain 10-15 years experience as a generalist. Then they must spent next 3-5 years in acquiring specialisation. They should also be given leave so that they can study further, acquire specialization, and then they should come back. In the field of speciality, they should be hired in ministries as officer on special duty, to further learn on the job. Basically they should be given a five year transition period to become specialists.

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In the last twenty years of their professional career, these specialist IAS officers should work in that field of specialisation. And what kind of specialisation should be there, they should choose one of the three sectors: social sector, economic services and or infrastructure. And once a civil servant has chosen a field of specialisation then he should not be allowed to change the sector.

The idea is that before someone becomes a joint secretary he should acquire 10-12 years of field experience and then they must specialise in next 3-4 years. They must acquire specialisation in their chosen field, including some in ministry experience on the job, before they are appointed as joint secretaries to Government of India, otherwise they should not be allowed to become joint secretaries. From that point onward they should remain in the sector of their specialisation. They shouldn’t be allowed to move from their chosen sector of specialisation, for example from infrastructure to health to defence.

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