Lateral hires a great idea, need a Nandan Nilekani now

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Published: June 21, 2019 1:45:29 AM

Between sacking officials and importing talent, big moves on bureaucratic reform; need a Nilekani-type thinker too.

Since no joint secretary can make a difference if the secretary or minister feel differently, to make a quick and visible impact, Modi needs to look for a Nandan-Nilekani-kind of person.

Between using a relatively obscure rule to compulsorily retire bureaucrats of dubious integrity to inducting domain experts into the bureaucracy at fairly senior levels, prime minister Narendra Modi’s bureaucratic reform is off to a good start. In just two days, the government retired 27 senior taxmen—12 from Income Tax and 15 from CBIC—under Rule 56(j) that allows the government to review the performance of those who attain the age of 50 or 55 or have completed 30 years of service and if need be, retire them “in the public interest”; in even Modi’s first tenure, the government retired officials, but the action seems to be more focused this time around. Indeed, given the allegations against some of the bureaucrats, some of whom had been suspended for 15 years, it is shocking that the system was so helpless that they managed to remain in service for so long. While these bureaucrats were removed for their alleged corruption, the government would do well to start weeding out inefficient bureaucrats.

Besides this, towards the end of Modi’s first term itself, the government even cleared the appointment of nine joint secretary rank officials from the private sector; one of them, Amber Dubey, for instance, was a partner in KPMG and headed the aerospace and defence division there. Given the paucity of domain expertise in the IAS, such lateral entrants should make a big difference, especially since it is at the level of the joint secretary that government proposals really begin to get shaped. And, though there is a 60% reservation level for all government jobs—including the 10% for the economically weak—it appears the government got over this by arguing that these jobs were “single posts” where “cadre reservation does not apply”. Going by a report in The Indian Express, the government is planning an even more ambitious induction of 400 domain experts at the deputy secretary level, though it is not clear how long it will take to do this.

While the impact of these lateral entrants will, of course, depend on how fast they get assimilated into the bureaucracy while, at the same time, retaining their different perspectives, Modi would do well to keep pushing the envelope. Since no joint secretary can make a difference if the secretary or minister feel differently, to make a quick and visible impact, Modi needs to look for a Nandan-Nilekani-kind of person; someone who can not only envisage something as out of the box as Aadhaar, imagine and help create a whole ecosystem of applications around it, and then convince politicians to back it even though it meant a big dent in the theft-ridden expenditure system that the political system patronised. Most important, apart from conceiving the system which some others can do as well, Nilekani actually managed to deliver it in record time. Getting outside talent at a senior level is critical since it is very easy, in government especially, to get swamped by the inconsequential and to get caught up in the procedural detail. What is needed is people who, Arjun-like, remain focused on the fish’s eye, almost to the exclusion of everything else; given how far behind India has fallen, smart lateral thinking and the ability to take advantage of what technology has to offer is critical.

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