The move to induct private and public sector talent “laterally” at the joint secretary level in 10 key Union ministries/departments comes not a day too soon. The focus is on merit; while the education threshold for eligibility is set at the graduate-degree level, a detailed advertisement from the department of personnel and training (DoPT) makes it clear that higher qualifications will be an advantage. The call is for “outstanding individuals” with expertise in the relevant fields. Government officers in states/UTs already working at an equivalent level or eligible for appointment to an equivalent level, PSU officials, individuals working in autonomous bodies, statutory organisations, universities, recognised research institutions can apply, as can senior management personnel—the DoPT ad says “comparable level”—in private sector companies.
The lateral-entry idea—most recently mooted by NITI Aayog in its Three Year Action Agenda—is not a new one. While the first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC), in 1965, had outlined the need for administrative services personnel to have specialised skills, the second ARC, in 2005, had recommended that a transparent method of doing this be institutionalised. Lateral entry has been used in the past to harness top talent from outside the civil services. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh—whose credentials as an economist first led to his appointment as chief economic adviser in 1972—served as the finance secretary from 1976 to 1980.
Similarly, former planning commission deputy chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who started his career as an economist with The World Bank, served as India’s commerce secretary (1990-91), economic affairs secretary (1991-93) and finance secretary (1993-98). That India richly benefited from the 1991 reforms—both Singh and Ahluwalia played a key role in this—shows how lateral entry could pay off. Various private sector experts have also been appointed as officers on special duty, ranked between under-secretary and secretary, to ministers. Institutionalising lateral entry, thus, makes it easier for the country to benefit from private sector/non-UPSC talent.
The move will also address the drying up of the talent pool at the top level—there is an overall shortfall of about 20% in just IAS officers in 24 state cadres. The 2016 BS Baswan committee report pointed out that many large states suffer from a pronounced deficit of IAS officers, leading to their reluctance to depute officers for central posting. While the shortage could run into hundreds and the current round of lateral entry will only select 10 from the pool of applicants, it is nevertheless a beginning.
States, perhaps, could take a cue from the Centre, which is reported to be looking at filling 40 posts via this route. Lateral entry will also address many structural problems the UPSC system suffers from—for instance, the seniority criteria in promotions has meant many talented lower ranked officers take a long time to get appointed to posts where their skills could have significant impact in the immediate run.