There has been much sound and fury about the need for induction of talent from outside into senior positions in the Government of India at the level of joint secretary and above. Several articles and editorials have made the case for lateral entry, without any case being made in opposition. This article seeks to restore the balance in what has been a one-sided debate.
The Indian civil services, particularly the All India Services (AIS), provide managerial leadership for government as a whole. The civil services have knit the administrative framework of a vast and diverse country into a coherent whole and provided a strong integrating element which the country can ill-afford to tamper with. They have provided an outstanding link between the cutting edge at the field level and top policymaking positions. This bridge, while crucial to all systems, has been of strategic significance in the Indian context, given the diversity and widespread poverty of the population. The width and depth of field experience which the civil services provide is simply not available with outside talent. There is no way that external talent can bridge the gap between policymaking and ground level implementation better than career civil servants.
The proposal for lateral entry at senior decision-making levels, besides increasing the disconnect between policymaking and implementation, will also result in inequitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of government service, with permanent civil servants left to bear the burden of "humble" implementation and lateral entrants getting access to "glamorous" policymaking positions, without having roughed it out in remote and rural India in the rough and tumble of Indian democracy. While there would certainly be a beeline for lateral entrants to join top policymaking positions, there would be no such great desire to serve the country at the ground level.
While there may be exceptions, the experience of inducting private-sector managers to run public-sector enterprises is not particularly satisfactory. Whiz-kids from the private sector who ran Air India, Indian Airlines and Vayudoot proved to be failures. Clearly, performance is vitally influenced by the enabling environment and the best managerial capability cannot deliver results in an adverse operating environment. A major part of the disillusionment (if any) with civil servants can be attributed to this enabling environment where innovation and risk-taking have been at a heavy discount. The oft-cited example of the Unique ID Authority of India attributes credit to a single individual, overlooking the contribution of outstanding civil servants like the director-general of the Authority.
It has generally been perceived that a secure career path has become one of the biggest shortcomings of a career-based structure. This is simply not true. There is no assurance that all civil servants will automatically reach the highest positions. In reality, there is tough competition - increased through rigorous scrutiny and weeding out of officers for empanelment at the level of joint secretary and above. In fact, the career trajectory of civil servants has become increasingly uncertain, insecure and hazardous.
The best talent can be attracted only if there is reasonable assurance of reaching top level managerial positions. This is true for government service as much as the private sector. Any dilution of the potential horizon for growth would discourage competent and motivated people. By suggesting a contract-based system for positions of joint secretary and above, the signal would be sent out that only mid-career positions would be within reach in about 15-18 years of service and there would be considerable uncertainty about career progression thereafter. Coupled with unattractive salary scales and non-entitlement to defined pension since 2004, this would become a potent trinity to deter talented persons from aspiring to civil service careers.
A good managerial system encourages and nurtures talent from within instead of seeking to induct leadership from outside. Any failure in this matter is primarily a failure of the system to identify and nurture talent at the appropriate stage. For this, the remedy lies not through lateral induction but through more rigorous performance appraisal and improved personnel management. Large-scale lateral induction would, in fact, amount to a vote of no-confidence in the government personnel management system, rather than in the highly dedicated, motivated and talented officers who have chosen to join the civil services.
It is not clear how lateral entrants would be more performance-oriented and less process-compliant than the civil service, considering that process compliance is the sine qua non for any supervisory authority. Expecting any different from lateral entrants would result in private sector lambs being led to slaughter.
The difficulty in measuring performance in government is another obstacle to be reckoned with. It is not easy to assess the performance of a secretary to the government, given the sheer complexity and amorphous nature of the job. The induction of lateral entrants would not by itself suffice for better performance orientation and enhanced accountability. It would be as difficult to measure the performance of lateral entrants as it would of career civil servants.
The real challenge before the country is the challenge of implementation. Lateral entry into top-level policymaking positions would have no impact whatsoever on field-level implementation. In that sense, the proposal for lateral entry is a red herring to the fundamental issue of weak implementation.
To sum up, while there are many shortcomings in the civil services in India, the suggestion for large-scale lateral entry into top policymaking positions is ill-considered and half-baked. Lateral entry would open the flood gates for a spoils system, drive talented people away from a civil service career, would be inequitable in terms of sharing the burdens and benefits of public service, would widen the disconnect between policymaking and implementation, and would not by itself result in improved managerial performance or enhanced accountability. Lateral entry has been an exception in the Indian civil service system and should continue to be so.