Straighter Administrators

Why just 10 posts for lateral entry into the bureaucracy? Why not 500?

This column has argued for decades for the lateral entry of outside experts into top administrative positions to usher in world-class expertise, independence and a different worldview. At last, the Narendra Modi government has invited applications for appointments to 10 joint secretary-level posts from “outstanding individuals”, including from the private sector, with expertise in the areas of revenue, financial services, economic affairs, agriculture, cooperation and farmers’ welfare, road transport and highways, shipping, environment, forests and climate change, new and renewable energy, civil aviation, and commerce. These posts will, hopefully, be reserved for lateral entry in years to come, thwarting Indian Administrative Service’s (IAS) attempts to sabotage outsiders.

But why only 10 posts for lateral entry? Why not 100, or even 500, including state administrations? India needs a worldclass administration. It does not need an administration monopolised by a handful of people who fared well in a Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exam decades ago, and have expected automatic promotion on the basis of that exam ever since.

In theory, promotions in the bureaucracy do not depend on seniority alone; merit should count too. But a bureaucrat told me smugly in my youth, “Merit is a matter of opinion, but seniority is a matter of fact.” Anybody in the private sector pressing such a viewpoint would be sacked, but this particular official almost became Cabinet secretary.

Lateral entry of experts into the administration is routine in well-governed countries across the globe, including the US, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. India is an exception. Has this exception made India better administered than the other countries? Don’t make me laugh.

The Indian bureaucracy may believe it is the cat’s whiskers, but its actual performance has been pathetic. The public believes that the civil service is neither civil nor delivers service.

Lateral entry in India is not unknown. Economic posts, in particular, have often been occupied by outsiders, including Manmohan Singh, Montek Ahluwalia, Vijay Kelkar, Bimal Jalan, Shankar Acharya, Rakesh Mohan, Arvind Virmani, Arvind Panagariya and Arvind Subramanian. Many played an absolutely key role in creating and implementing the economic reforms from 1991 onward, which have now made India the fastestgrowing economy in the world.

Yet, the bureaucratic reaction to this success was so adverse that the government decided to ‘cadre-ise’ economic posts to ensure that members of the Indian Economic Service got to the top. Has this produced even one outcome that stands out? Alas, no.

Many disgruntled bureaucrats will try to sabotage Modi’s lateral entry reform unobtrusively. One ex-bureaucrat, Sudeep Singh Dhillon, has come into the open in a recent Mint column (‘Lateral Entry Can Crush the Steel Frame of India’, He cites global experts as saying that getting into the IAS is as difficult as getting into Harvard. This proves, he thinks, that IAS chaps are the brightest, and best qualified to rule.

True, getting into the IAS proves you are very bright. But so does getting into St Stephen’s College, any IIT or IIM, or Infosys or Hindustan Unilever. But does entry into any of these institutions guarantee you seniority for life, or protection against being overtaken by lateral entrants? Of course not.

Learn to Govern

Dhillon thinks “only a generalist with rich experience in public administration can visualise, see through, and articulate macro perspectives. Besides, she has sufficient experience of working at the village, district and state level. She understands how policies are implemented and the shortcomings of various policies.”

Doubtless, grassroots experience can be a huge advantage, especially in district-level administration. But it can also be a huge disadvantage, since minute expertise on existing local conditions can blind you to the vast universe of possibilities demonstrated across the globe.

Inderjit Singh, a former World Bank economist, once described his interactions with Chinese and Indian officials. “Indians believe they already know everything. They want the World Bank to hand over money without asking questions. The Chinese, however, see the Bank as a source of global knowledge. They are acutely aware that their own experience is a limitation, and that they must learn from the rest of the world.” That sums up why the Dhillons of India have been left far behind by their Chinese counterparts.

Dhillon says “lateral entries have been made in the past by previous ruling establishments. They haven’t been successful experiments. The whole experience of inducting private sector ‘managers’ has been far from satisfactory when it came to ‘managing’ the public sector. To be specific, examples include Air India, Indian Airlines, Vayudoot, etc.”

This leaves one gasping with astonishment. Did public sector white elephants fare any better under IAS CEOs? The success of lateral economist entrants listed in this column speaks for itself. Homi Bhabha, M S Swaminathan, V Krishnamurthy, Sam Pitroda, Raghuram Rajan and other lateral entrants performed far better than their IAS predecessors.

Arvind Subramanian said on leaving the government that India must aim to get the world’s best to improve the administration. It must not rely on a handful that passed a UPSC exam decades ago. Ten posts for lateral entry is a good start, but must be expanded to hundreds.

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