Highlighting how Márta Károlyi, national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, chose to have mostly generalists with one outstanding specialist in getting the team ahead for the just concluded Rio Olympics, George Bradt, a contributor to Forbes, was explaining the other day why generalist vs. specialist is an age-old debate. He was trying to make a point on how to excel in business and sports.
According to Bradt, “A generalist knows less and less about more and more until eventually he or she knows nothing about everything. A specialist knows more and more about less and less until eventually he or she knows everything about nothing. Being either a generalist or a specialist is useless, and anyone trying to be both at the same time inevitably self-destructs.”
Bradt’s point is worth remembering when one enters the debate over generalist vs. specialist in the Indian bureaucracy, the debate that is as old as one can remember. In fact, ever since the 7th Pay Commission Report has been out (it was implemented last month), the debate has further intensified. So much so that none other than the chairman of the of the 7th Pay Commission, Justice Ashok Desai, has been critical of how the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) cadre is “relegating all other services to secondary position”, both in occupying key posts and in managing higher pay scale for itself. For Justice Mathur, subject domain should be the criterion for senior appointments, not experience of the generalist IAS officers.
Justice Mathur seems to share the views of many notable Indians, both in the past and at present. Well-known technocrat of yesteryears KL Rao had argued that persons with knowledge of technology and science, not generalist IAS officers, should head developmental enterprises, as a generalist head of department is likely to view things from the point of view of generalist administration of the secretariat rather than the technical work of the department. Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy goes even to the extent of suggesting the abolition of the IAS and the system of generalist administrators; he would like a cadre of specialists to deal with complex and highly technical governance issues.
Going by this line of argument, departments such as agriculture, power, mining, infrastructural developments (highways, ports), shipping and health should be headed by specialists, not IAS officers. A similar case is made against how the revenue secretary (heading the departments like income tax and custom) has always been an IAS officer, not one belonging to the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). In fact, many do not fathom how the Comptroller and Auditor General of India is always an IAS officer, not the one from the specialised Audits and Accounts Service. Officers belonging to the Indian Police Service (IPS) resent why none of them has ever been a home secretary. It may also be noted in this context that more often than not the high office of the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has gone to IAS officers, not economists – the list of RBI governors till date makes this point obvious; the likes of Manmohan Singh, Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel have been exceptions.
It may be noted that IAS officers are chosen because of the higher marks they obtain in the combined civil services examination. That they dominate other civil servants in rank and pay throughout their careers because of better marks in one-time examination is considered unfair by many. Even here, there is a rider. Until recently, the toppers in the civil service examinations were opting for Indian Foreign Service (IFS). But it so happens that the cabinet secretary (the head of the civil service in the country) has always been a IAS person, even if he or she ranked in the civil services examination much below an IFS officer of the same batch. Naturally, there is a sense of resentment in IFS over the IAS-domination.
The principal argument against the domination of the IAS in the Indian bureaucracy is that it has outlived its utility as a generalist service in a world that is increasingly becoming complex and where domain knowledge has become more valuable. The IAS, so runs the argument, is the successor of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) as developed by the British ruling class. As a service it was the instrument of a laissez-faire government at home and a colonial administration in the Empire. Its fundamental role then was to cater to the objectives of a law and order, revenue-collection and administration of justice. A generalist ICS officer was trained how to promote stability and limit changes by citing “rules” and “files”.
However, now the administrative agenda has expanded to all-round development, including political, social and economic reforms, which, in turn, calls for increased expertise in policy formulations and implementations that the “amateur generalist” is unable to deliver upon. In fact, no developed country is run by panel of generalists. Even the United Kingdom, whose legacy the IAS continues, is now allowing lateral entries of the specialists at higher echelons of its bureaucracy on a contractual basis, something the Modi government is not prepared to go for on an experimental basis. Last month, it rejected the idea of lateral entries of specialists in the bureaucracy. While answering to a suggestion by the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor in Lok Sabha, the minister of state in the department of personnel, Jitendra Singh, said that the government was not thinking on those lines.
In contrast, in Japan bureaucrats spend their entire careers in the same ministry, thereby gaining expertise on the job. In the United States it is the rule of the specialists of various hues, each group doing its assigned task under the broad supervision of the "political" executives, mostly secretaries (equivalent to our ministers) and the legislators in certain cases. Unlike the IAS which is trained for “coordination” by 'rules and files, the American civil servant is judged by “innovation in policy and procedure”. Unlike in India where a generalist minister is often helped by a generalised secretary, in the US, each minister (called secretary) has his or her own chosen advisers from the private sector (corporations, universities, think-tanks and the media) on contractual basis; they are in the government as long as there is the concerned secretary.
Do the generalists then deserve no place in the bureaucracy? This certainly cannot be the case in India where problems are of long-term adjustment, not mere orderly transition. Administration, after all, is politics in action; hence not divorced from the political process. But then politics is an art of compromises of various, often conflicting, demands. Similarly, the administration, as late Paul H Appleby, an important American theorist of public administration in democracies, said, is derived from the fact that “as the divergent points of view get coordinated, filtered and ultimately crystallised into decisions, compromises are affected all along the line in such a manner that an overall general view emerges in the shape of policy.” Top management job requires a general understanding. It requires a view of the whole, something a generalist is good at.
Here, a specialist in administration has distinct disadvantages. If his suggestion or decision is accepted then that is weighed in favour of specialisation in such a way that it gets the place of prominence in a policy decision that is of general nature. It is like expecting a heart-specialist or neuro-surgeon to determine the health-policy as a whole. An excellent electrical engineer in a power plant does not necessarily become adept in policies relating to the country’s solar or wind energy. All told, every technical field has got hundreds of branches and thus hundreds of specialists. So which specialist should be chosen to administer that particular technical field? As Appleby has argued "as one's knowledge increases in a specialised way, by study or situation and assignment, one's general ignorance increases disproportionately. The price of specialisation of every kind is parochialism."
Another aspect of a good administration is the language to convey its ideas. Imagine if a non-expert minister is unable to understand what his or her highly specialised secretary advises him on a day-to-day basis. This difficulty in communication is not limited only to minister-secretary relationship but becomes an issue in the inner functioning of the department as well. It is worth citing here the example cited by Appleby. When the Manhattan Project in New York was being undertaken, an English Professor was brought in as interpreter among various specialists. The point is that a lot of capacity for expression in elegant language is required to get the departmental point of view accepted. And in this task, a generalist is usually better than a specialist.
It is also noteworthy that in the strict sense of the term no generalist IAS officer is a downright generalist and that he or she knows nothing of anything else. In many a case, IAS officers, as they move up in their careers, go for specialised training or higher education to best universities, both in the country and abroad; many of them even obtain PhDs. In fact, in many cases the domain–knowledge in a particular department is best illustrated by the writings of these IAS officers.
All this is not to suggest that there is no room for reforms in India’s higher bureaucracy. We need definitely more specialists than what is the case now. It is true that many non-IAS officers do head departments like space, atomic energy, railways, posts and external affairs. There are the likes of academicians Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia who were co-opted as secretaries to the government of India. But this number is small and needs to be enlarged, particularly in core areas of technologies and infrastructures. There is also a strong case for lateral entry of specialists in the upper echelons for specific periods. What India needs today is an ideal blend of generalists and specialists.