Public policy services: How these can be the solution to lateral entry into civil services

Published: August 31, 2017 3:50:09 AM

India had long been labelled with policy paralysis owing to multiple scams, slow decision-making and lack of clear direction on policy implementation.

Policy analysis, policy implementation, civil servicesIndia had long been labelled with policy paralysis owing to multiple scams, slow decision-making and lack of clear direction on policy implementation.(Representative Image: IE)

India had long been labelled with policy paralysis owing to multiple scams, slow decision-making and lack of clear direction on policy implementation. It is an apathy to note that this policy paralysis has largely been accounted to ineffective bureaucracy, which constitutes some of the brightest minds in the country who had burnt midnight oil to get into the prestigious civil services. With new government in power since 2014, civil services administration reforms and rooting out corruption at the higher bureaucratic levels have remained centre-stage. The much-needed focus by the government on addressing the bottlenecks in administrative decision-making and coordination, and making the top civil servants accountable for not achieving annual targets has gone a long way in reversing the image of policy paralysis.

This focus on making bureaucracy more efficient and accountable also seems to have significantly helped India improve its rankings in the Global Competitiveness Index from 71 in 2014-15 to 39 in 2016-17. However, India’s low rankings in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business (130 out of 190 economies) points out to still rampant bureaucratic red tape to some extent, especially at the lower level. It is estimated that India has a shortage of 1,470 IAS officers, 908 IPS officers and 560 IFS officers, accounting for 23%, 19% and 18% of their cadre strength, respectively. To summarise, civil services in India struggles with the twin challenges of workforce shortage and ineffectiveness. To decipher these challenges, especially the latter, we need to understand the nature of work profile of Indian bureaucrats, especially IAS officers.

IAS officers, supposedly the one responsible for decision-making, are hired as generalists having expertise in public administration. They spend most of their early to mid career in the field, looking after individual districts, and then move to specific state/central government ministries on rotation basis. The extensive field experience helps IAS officers understand policy implementation challenges in a wide range of subjects at the ground level—labour, agriculture, education, sanitation, to name a few. However, this extensive field experience comes at the cost of missed opportunity to gain in-depth expertise in a particular area. The tenure of less than two years on an average, barring few cases, in a particular department/ministry further prevents the officers from gaining the desired technical expertise in a particular sector, leading to discomfort in taking important or informed decisions in many cases. This, in any way, doesn’t reflect upon their ability of decision-making at all.

Needless to say, policy-making has become a specialised and complex job, having a multidisciplinary impact. For instance, increase in per hour wage rate of labourers under MGNREGA adversely impacted the availability of labour in agriculture and hence food inflation. India needs a number of specialists in policy-making, especially in niche areas such as private sector development, innovation, preventive healthcare, use of Big Data in governance, technology, trade agreements, etc. As the nation develops, so does its need to get a more tech-savvy and specialist public sector workforce. The recent announcement by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) asking the Department of Personnel and Training to prepare a roadmap for lateral entry into civil services is a welcome step in this direction.

However, instead of hiring specialists from the private sector for a limited period of 3-5 years, India could look at establishing a new services cadre called Indian Public Policy Services. These services would nurture a new breed of civil servants having domain expertise and advanced technical know-how in selected sectors. They would also have in-depth working knowledge and expertise in economic development, while having a global outlook. At the time of recruitment, the inductees in these services can choose one or two related sectors of their interest and would work in these sectors only throughout their service tenure. For instance, labour-skills, technology-innovation, industry-start-ups, preventive healthcare-nutrition, sanitation-waste management, to new a few. The inductees could also be involved in policy-making decisions under required supervision from the start, so that by mid-career they could transform into policy specialists.

The establishment of this service would greatly help the government to have the required in-house technical expertise with a solid understanding of government functioning and policy implementation challenges. The model could also be adopted easily for lateral entrants into civil services. In spite of hiring specialists for a limited time-frame which would limit the interest of many exceptional candidates, it is best to recruit them as a lateral entrant into Indian Public Policy Services cadre. This change could greatly help both the government and lateral entrant inductees to work together in any specialised area. Rather than looking lateral entrants as a new layer of bureaucracy, Indian Public Policy Services could integrate well within the existing government machinery and ongoing civil services administration reforms. Taking such a bold step would still require a lot of new thinking, but it’s the ideas that always motivate us to take the first step.

By Anshul Pachouri

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