Modi Govt’s Lateral Entry Reform Is Fashionable, But at What Cost?

Rather than attracting fresh talent, this simple-minded attempt will marginalise the talent already available.

5 min read
Modi Govt’s Lateral Entry Reform Is Fashionable, But at What Cost?

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Much controversy has arisen over the recent public advertisement of the Government of India inviting professionals for a lateral entry into public service. The intent is to attract ‘talented and motivated’ individuals working outside the government to work as a Joint Secretary (typically a person heading a Ministry Division) in ten different sectors – agriculture, environment and climate change, revenue, financial services, road transport, shipping, new and renewable energy, civil aviation and commerce. On offer, is a contractual appointment for three years, which could be extended upto five.

On the face of it, it’s a proposal harmless enough. After all, the induction of ‘outstanding’ individuals who have excelled in their areas of expertise in the private sector, or PSUs, or NGOs or Consultancy organisations can only enrich governance, not damage it – particularly when it is for a limited period.


Do Away With UPSC at Your Own Peril

It is a valid argument and indeed the periodic induction of genuine outside talent at different levels and different stages enhances capacity. It is not a new idea and there have been many lateral entrants into the government who have made a distinctive contribution – Luvraj Kumar, Mantosh Sodhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, Vijay Kelkar, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Jairam Ramesh and several others. So what is it that makes many of us see red in the latest proposal?

The first is, that the government seems to have dispensed with the role of the Union Public Service Commission – the constitutionally mandated agency for recruitment to the civil services and all civil posts within the government. Given its 92-year-old history it has the experience, expertise, skills and the infrastructure to make it one of the most credible agencies for recruitment to a variety of posts in the government – technical and general.

As a talent scout for the government, UPSC’s experience is unmatched. Its constitutional authority enables it to be independent, fair and capable of resisting undue pressures and influences.

Very few posts – excepting those requiring high levels of scientific specialisation – have ever been kept out of its purview and even for those the UPSC has to be mandatorily consulted for formulating the recruitment rules. This constitutional obligation appears to have been dispensed with in this instance (I’m open to being corrected on this) making the whole exercise legally questionable.


The Selection Committee Conundrum

The UPSC is being substituted here by a specially constituted Selection Committee. This raises several more questions. Who will constitute this Selection Committee and decide its composition? What is the guarantee that the committee will not be packed with those who will be their political masters’ voice?

Will there be separate Selection Committees for each of the ten posts or one Committee for all ten? What expertise in the ten different sectors for which candidates are being chosen will the Selection Committee have? How will it determine what experience at what level is required for each sector? How will it go about establishing who out of the eligible contenders is ‘talented and motivated’ and ‘outstanding’?

What is meant by the term ‘motivated’, which sounds suspiciously like Indira Gandhi seeking a ‘committed’ bureaucracy. What methods will it use to ensure transparency and objectivity in the selection process? Without constitutional protection, how will committee members resist undue pressures to select favourites and cronies?

There is little available on record to provide answers to these questions and given the government’s track record of opacity in decision making it is doubtful if any answers will be made available.


By now, it is also abundantly clear that most appointments made by this government – be it to constitutional bodies like the CEC, the UPSC, the CVC, the CAG or statutory institutions, or higher educational institutions, or academic and cultural institutions- have been blatantly partisan. There the ideological inclinations of the appointees have mattered more than merit. The suspicion that similar motives guide the present initiative is, therefore, not unfounded.

What is Being Achieved, After All?

One of the first principles of good administration/management which many of us learnt was the importance of defining problems with clarity and precision before attempting to find solutions. It is easy to confuse symptoms of the problem for the problem itself and then find that the remedy proposed ends up in worsening the problem rather than resolving it.

In the present instance it is unclear what problem the lateral recruitment solution is expected to solve? Is it the gap between the expertise available within the government and the expertise required? If so, has this gap been determined on the basis of an inventory of the expertise available within and have the specific areas in which it exists been clearly identified?

Has any exercise been done to see what is the best way of meeting this gap and which is the best catchment area for attracting the right talent? Is recruitment through an open advertisement the best method for attracting the talent required rather than a search-cum-selection method based on peer references?


Why Go the Generalist Way, Again?

One of the absurdities of the proposal is that while the stated intent is to attract expertise in specific sectors, the educational requirements listed are a simple graduate degree with 15 years of work experience of persons working at ‘comparable’ levels to a Joint Secretary in the Government of India. Most critics of the IAS never tire of ridiculing the generalist educational background of IAS personnel and the mismatch between their educational training and the jobs they end up doing.

One would have thought, therefore, that in inducting expertise laterally, this lacunae would have been taken care of.

Instead, the requirements have been made so open ended that any Selection Committee would find it impossible to locate the right kind of expertise. Unlike entrance to the Civil Services, there is not even a rigorous competitive examination system to sift the chaff from the grain.

Making Bureaucracy Fashionable Again

It has been fashionable for some time now to pay homage to the importance of bringing in increasing number of specialists and domain experts into mainstream governance and move away from the allegedly primitive model of governance represented by the IAS.

Much of this fashionable discourse is itself based on somewhat outmoded ideas of the industrial era when ‘management’ was reified as an academic discipline.

Precepts and ideas based on practices followed by large corporations were inducted into the mainstream public administration and governance discourse. It is tempting to plunge into a discussion on the bogus nature of this discourse but that will be the subject of a longer separate essay.

Suffice it to point out two 21st Century trends, which most votaries of the supremacy of the ‘specialist’ over the ‘generalist’ seem ignorant of. The first is that the new knowledge economy is increasingly moving into a realm which is multi and interdisciplinary, and where convergence skills are the most sought after.

The second, both in government and public policy circles and in corporate/business strategy circles, sectoral fragmentation and narrow specialisation have given way to a team-based, multi-sectoral approach to problems. Each sector is so inseparably interconnected with the other that sectorally fragmented approaches can be calamitous. Good governance practices require skills in fusion and synthesis.


It is these skills which are in abundance in the IAS, and instead of nurturing them and honing them further, simple-minded attempts at reform only go to marginalise the talent already available. The half-baked idea of lateral entry, as currently formulated, will only lead to a completely splintered administration.

(The author is a former IAS officer. The views expressed above are of the author’s alone and The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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