Modi’s lateral entry scheme is an excellent idea to infuse talent into a jaded bureaucracy. But let’s not forget that it is process that drives administration.
The Union government recently put out an advertisement seeking candidates for positions to be filled at the Joint Secretary (JS) level in various ministries. The step has mostly been applauded, with one even calling it a “declaration of independence”.
The opposing voices, however, have mostly harped on the “inclusiveness” factor not being made apparent.
The need for merit and specialisation is indisputable. Senior journalist T C A Srinivasa Raghavan explains it quite eloquently in this article in Swarajya, but suggests internal reforms in the form of creating an Indian Policy Management Service. The Modi government bit the bullet and has called for outside expertise. Even before this move, there are many “lateral entrants” in the form of Officers on Special Duty (OSDs) and Advisers in the current dispensation who are recruited from the private sector at the Director level.
The appreciation of the move across the spectrum stems from real and imagined inefficiencies with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers manning various ministries. It is no secret that almost all IAS officers are generalists and have no deep expertise in the subject matter relating to their departments/ministries. It is believed that if candidates with more than a decade of experience are recruited at the JS level, they would be able to offer studied policy solutions to problems rather than the Hail Mary approach taken now. This thinking is only partially true and smacks of the same laziness that the bureaucracy is accused of.
The JS is in charge of a specific sub-area within a department, say telemedicine and e-health in the Ministry of Health. His position is akin to the neck of an hourglass. He is supposed to be informed about all things telemedicine, to offer suggestions upwards to the Additional Secretary, Secretary or even the Minister. He implements the orders from the higher-ups downwards through the Director, Under Secretary, and coordinates the rest of the bureaucracy at the central and state government levels. The upward function needs domain expertise. The downward function needs bureaucratic experience of manoeuvring, bullying, persuading, and getting things done. Critics of the current system are just obsessed with the upward function in which subject matter expertise is required while ignoring the downward function.
Also, the upward function of ideating is mostly done at Secretary and Minister levels. Assume a brilliant marketing expert joins the Ministry of Agriculture as JS in charge of Agriculture Marketing. She may bring in excellent ideas for reform, but do you think she can get it done through the byzantine system in an efficient and time-bound manner?
Take a simple matter of handling files, the lifeblood of bureaucracy. Bureaucrats get into trouble if they are not careful. Ask P C Parakh, the embattled ex-coal secretary. A lateral entrant will take at least a year to get to understand the filing system. Even very bright OSDs, who usually have prior political exposure, take that much time to get into the groove in understanding files, the culture of the government, the internal team dynamics, and so on. Subordinates will know that the new JS will be in just for three years and they will recalibrate their attitudes accordingly. These are just a few aspects.
So how do we work around to bring about fresh thinking and best practices from outside? To answer that, we should clearly differentiate policy-making and implementation. There should be clear differentiation of roles for both. Of course, there is broad scope for collaboration, learning from feedback loops, and so on between the two functions. Nevertheless, once we get clarity on the “brains” and the “hands”, the problem becomes easy to attack. A good bureaucrat is brilliant in execution. It comes with experience in the district, state, and then during central deputation. The problem is with the “brains” part in terms of subject matter expertise that is lacking.
The minister-bureaucrat system is designed such that the minister that gets elected by the will of the people recommends polices, and the bureaucrat executes it. Because of the poor policy-making skills of most ministers, the bureaucrat has usurped that role as well. Thus, the “man behind the curtain” has come to call the shots, whichever party is in power.
To overcome this pattern, ministers have started bringing in trusted people in their teams as OSDs, Advisers, and so on. These people help in ideating and suggesting policy interventions to the minister. They bring in private sector experience, energy, and, more importantly, loyalty. Some of these “lateral entrants” have done exceptional work such as in Roadways, Human Resource Development, and Power among other ministries, in proposing innovative ideas and raising the profile of the ministries. It should not be forgotten that the lateral entrants in the Prime Minister’s Office made this very “lateral entry” scheme possible! Such positions are now here to stay, which should be welcomed. They are closer to execution since they tag along ministers. This makes them most useful in the chaotic Indian policy-making process, where a timely comment can make a big difference. A flaw in the above setup, however, is that loyalty is placed much above expertise.
To assuage all of this, the solution would be to create a position of Adviser at an Additional Secretary level within each department. The criteria can be laid out for the role such that the best talent comes in. The position can be made co-terminus with the incumbent government and the selection done by the Minister and Secretary concerned, to be vetted by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. Being higher up in the food chain, this Additional Secretary can outsource the job of implementation to the Joint Secretary. A simplified file-handling system could be thought through such that the person coming in is fully focused on bringing in innovation.
The Indian Express provided a bucket list of lateral entrants that have served in the bureaucracy, from Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Sam Pitroda, saying that the practice has not been unheard of. It is apparent from the list that most of these people had served in the highest roles in their organisations. They brought in ideas and tried to implement them by brandishing their proximity to the Nehru-Gandhi family. In the current administration, Drinking Water and Sanitation Secretary Parameswaran Iyer (though an ex-IAS) driving Swachh Bharat Mission has been a revelation.
A question the reader might be asking is: don’t the people conceptualising the lateral entry know this? They definitely do. But the bureaucrats involved would have thwarted the idea of recruiting at Additional Secretary or Secretary level lest they cede control. The compromise is the JS-level entry. A point not to be missed is that this idea was doing the rounds in the first year of the Modi government; it got done in the fifth year, after push and pull.
Nevertheless, this author does not intend to pour cold water over good intentions. The expectations of the government from the public are enormous in an era of rapid change. Hence, it is a welcome move in principle. We might get to learn from the experience of lateral entrants at the JS level on how their new roles are structured to address their lack of implementation experience. The new initiative might lead to improvement in bureaucratic processes themselves. The Indian system, with its not-so-rigid structuring, always leaves scope for entrepreneurship and surprises that lead to interesting learning. But when we evaluate the programme at the end of the day, we should ask whether we hired the correct horses for the courses in the first place.