Governance Reform: Lateral Entry Must Be Accompanied By Lateral Exit 

Abhay Sharma and Gyanveer Singh

Aug 23, 2016, 08:17 PM | Updated 08:17 PM IST

North Block, New Delhi 
North Block, New Delhi 
  • While the bureaucracy cannot remain static in a dynamic and ever-changing environment, fears of nepotism, too, are not entirely unfounded.
  • The latest buzzword in the field of governance reforms in India is “lateral entry”. In its simplest form, it means entry of outside domain experts in government structure at sufficiently senior positions to allow for proper utilisation of their expertise. Numerous committees and reform commissions have advocated a gradual opening up of the closed structure of government machinery to allow for entry of these “experts”. The latest recommendation for lateral entry comes first from the 7th Pay Commission and, in quick succession, from the Niti Aayog— the post-Planning Commission policy think tank of the government. This recommendation has generated considerable curiosity and anxiety among the bureaucracy.

    Why Lateral Entry?

    The idea of inducting exceptional talent from outside is not entirely new. K.R. Narayanan, India’s 10th President, joined the Indian Foreign Service at the behest of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, apparently without appearing for the qualifying examinations. He was strongly recommended by the renowned political theorist Harold J. Laski. Some recent examples include the appointment of Nandan Nilekani (Chairman of UIDAI), Raghuram Rajan (Governor of the Reserve Bank of India) and various other experts in the Niti Aayog and other government bodies. However, the recent recommendations— advocating an increase in both the number and reach of subject experts— have generated considerable debate.

    The logic behind this recommendation is that outside experts bring fresh insights and innovative solutions to long-standing problems of the government. Further, with governance becoming increasingly complex, experts need to be at the forefront to manage uncertainty in decisions. Bureaucracy is seen as a monolith with no scope for improvement. It is seen as a self-serving, obstructionist license-quota Raj vestige, which is anachronistic in today’s era of “less government, more governance.” It is an argument well-known to students of public administration that Weberian bureaucracy is status-quoist, and is not fit to administer a chaotic, rapidly growing country where nimble-footedness is an essential trait.

    Today, the country needs facilitators, not rulers. The age is of empowerment, not of charity. An archaic administrative setup will only become an impediment to the progress of the country as a self-reliant industrial giant and to its citizens as empowered stakeholders in matters of public importance. And this is where lateral entry is prescribed as a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Following the footsteps of the Centre, states, too, appear to have joined the bandwagon. The government of Bihar is reportedly hiring IT experts and MBAs who will work to build smart cities.

    Criticisms And Oppositions

    The opposition to lateral entry comes from the apprehension that such appointments will not be made by merit. Currently, top bureaucracy is inducted into the civil services through a fiercely competitive and largely fair examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) which deservedly prides itself on being the “watchdog” of the merit system in India. Lateral appointments will be made at the sweet will of the political masters and will mostly induct loyalists, hampering the neutrality of the civil services. It will lead to nepotism. Further, career bureaucrats know the government machinery inside-out and, therefore, are more efficient at producing results with limited resources.

    There is nothing inherently good or bad about lateral entry. Whether such a system will work in India, with its complex administrative setup and multiple fault lines (religious, caste, regional and linguistic) in the body-politic, only time will tell. Fears of nepotism, too, are not entirely unfounded. However, the bureaucracy cannot remain static in a dynamic and ever-changing environment. The induction of qualified domain experts is the need of the hour, and they will certainly benefit the system with their fresh perspectives.

    However, all ideas are good till they are executed. Same is true with the concept of lateral entry. It is still not clear how these lateral entrants will be inducted, for what positions, in what capacity and for how long, whether the lateral entrants would become part of the permanent bureaucracy or would they come and go with the change of the Government (typical of the American “spoils system”)? If such inductees are to become part of the permanent bureaucracy, their recruitment, service conditions and promotion rules have to be framed in such a way that they don’t end up politicising it or discriminate against the existing lot which is no less capable but for the structural limitations. A clear roadmap for holistic administrative and governance reforms needs to be spelt out.

    How Can Lateral Entry Be Applied In Reforms?

    When we talk about reforming bureaucracy, let us not, once again, limit ourselves to talking about higher bureaucracy alone as it is the lower level functionaries who implement the policies and decisions taken at the top. They man all the posts at the cutting edge of public interaction and it’s their efforts, or the lack thereof, that make a policy successful or unsuccessful. However, they are seldom trained for their roles, responsibilities and challenges as needed. It is well-known that very little attention has been paid in our country to improving this part of the machinery— be it recruitment, training or performance appraisal— which is so crucial to the success of all programs. Neglecting this part means that the higher bureaucracy has not been able to perform up to its full potential— even though a substantial chunk of them come from very good educational backgrounds. The same people, on going to the private sector, perform exceptionally well.

    Lateral entry cannot be a stand-alone reform; it has to be accompanied with “lateral exit,” even if it of a temporary nature. A more flexible revolving-door policy needs to be adopted in collaboration with academia, policy think tanks and private consulting firms which deal with government projects so that skills and insights acquired by government servants in these short stints are implemented in government. Training needs to become more dynamic with updated curricula, and study leaves need to be granted more often for further honing of skills.

    In this way, the government will have its own set of domain experts. These “internal” subject experts, along with the outside experts, should be considered a part of the potential talent pool for any appointment, especially at policy-making levels. The aim should be to grab the best talents from wherever possible and provide them with the best training, remuneration and autonomy so that they can deliver. Isolated attempts at administrative reforms can prove ineffective; there has to be a holistic and broad-based overhaul. Recruitment, training, appraisal, and remuneration, all need to be reevaluated. Open the top posts to lateral entry, improve the recruitment and training structure at the middle level and computerise all service delivery mechanisms, to the extent possible. Lateral entry is not an end in itself, it is only one of the many means to an end, which is, good governance.

    Abhay Sharma is a civil servant (I.R.T.S) with the Ministry of Railways and an IIT-Delhi graduate. Gyanveer Singh is a career diplomat (I.F.S) and an IIT-Roorkee graduate. Views expressed are personal.

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