Government's lateral hiring plan shows serious intent, but reservations and bureaucratic trials may play spoilsport

With the 2019 general elections approaching, the Narendra Modi government has sprung a pleasant surprise by opening its recruitment door just a crack to modernity. On Sunday, it advertised for 10 professionals to be directly inducted as joint secretaries, a senior management level in government bureaucracy. Guesstimates peg the number of government staff at over two crore, so lateral entry for 10 can seem like no big deal. But it is a big deal, make no mistake, as it sets a precedent.

 Governments lateral hiring plan shows serious intent, but reservations and bureaucratic trials may play spoilsport

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Modi became the most popular leader in India in three decades on the promise of improving the quality of life of ordinary people. A long-held popular feeling about successive governments is that citizens don’t get their money’s worth with large swathes of 'babudom' widely perceived as corrupt, inefficient and deficient in expertise. Modi’s key slogan was 'Minimum Government, Maximum Governance', and that, no doubt, touched a chord with people, especially the middle class.

To redeem the promise in full measure, it is vitally important that the best experts work as part of the government. For example, in the Ministry of Finance, which collects our taxes, can the officers pit their wits against chartered accountants and other accounting professionals in the private sector? Are the generalist administrators in the telecom and IT ministries proficient in the latest technologies, and can they help formulate policies that boost the economy while safeguarding privacy and security?

The previous Congress-led UPA government had made its highest-profile lateral hire when it had asked co-founder of Infosys Nandan Nilekani to head a government project, which is now the Aadhaar programme. Nilekani was astute enough to demand that he be ranked equivalent to a Cabinet minister, thus ensuring that he could assert his will over a rigid bureaucracy. The current government rehired Parameswaran Iyer for the Swacch Bharat mission, and by all accounts, he is succeeding against the odds. The hope and expectation are that men and women with expertise at key levels of government will make it more responsive to the needs of citizens.

The obvious obstacles

By formalising lateral hiring, Modi is signalling serious intent when it comes to delivering on the promise of governance. But there are several flies in the ointment.

The most obvious one relates to the government itself. Nilekani, who holds the rank of a Union Cabinet minister, underwent many trials and tribulations at the hands of the bureaucracy. How will a poor joint secretary who becomes part of a resentful system fare? What is the government doing to ensure that those who are hired laterally are empowered to do their jobs? Nipunata (expertise) is all very good, but what about neeyat (intentions)? How will a person with nipunata succeed in an environment with questionable neeyat? The process of governance, of decision-making (if at all), is prone to interminable delays and underhand dealings. How do we fix this?

Representative image of SC/ST MPs staging a protest for reservation. PTI

Representative image of SC/ST MPs staging a protest for reservation. PTI

The other obvious fly is the issue of caste-based reservation. Fitting 10 laterally-hired joint secretaries will prove to be hard enough. How then are we going to deal with systemic change? Does the Modi government have a master-plan? It is already under pressure to come up with an ordinance to protect quotas in promotions. On the one hand, there is the inevitability of caste, and on the other is the imperative for reform.

How will the government square this circle?

Perhaps it should provide a proof of concept for serious governance reform in an easier place and where it matters a great deal now — public sector banks. As majority owner, the government can bring about meaningful changes in the way public sector banks are administered. The Bank Boards Bureau, which was envisioned to do this, has failed, and that is because of questions about neeyat. Can we demonstrate good neeyat by making public sector banks truly autonomous and their boards really accountable to shareholders (meaning us, the public)?

In sum, two things need to happen now. The first is a demonstration of credibility by bringing about governance reform in a place where it is not so difficult to implement — at state-run banks. The government must also show that it has a blueprint for governance reform. How will this moribund system be replaced by one that puts outcomes over process? And how do you remove the large quota fly in the governance reform ointment?

That said, the lateral entry measure shows a willingness to confront a touchy subject, especially with the general elections not too far away. It is a challenge to vested interests and decades of habit. If handled judiciously, the 'Lateral 10' can be the vanguard of reform in the way the government functions. Someday, it may mean that democracy in India will truly be rule by, for and of the people.

However, if we do not undertake serious reform of the bureaucracy, the government will have failed its citizens once more. Which is why bits and pieces changes alone will not do. Tinkering with a jalopy will not give us a Jaguar.

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2018 16:47:50 IST