Lateral recruitment to senior govt posts will show bureaucrats they are not irreplaceable, can't ride exam success forever

"For every apparent blessing contains the seeds of danger — every area of trouble gives out a ray of hope — and the one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable."
- John F Kennedy

As a young citizen who has worked in the private sector for more than five years, I was elated after reading the notification issued by the Government of India's Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India regarding 'Lateral Recruitment to Senior Positions in Government of India' for two reasons. First, it was a much-needed shift from the conventional civil services, that suffer a colonial hangover and encourage inertia. Second, it provides middle-aged professionals a chance to be a part of nation-building and contribute to a better tomorrow for India.

Not corporatisation of Indian bureaucracy

Anyone who is trying to sell the narrative that this is the "corporatisation of bureaucracy" has clearly missed the point. Like every nation, whether emerging or developed, engages with experts and consultants for subject matter expertise, India has always reached out to experts who have excelled in their respective fields, to seek their guidance and support in policymaking.

Representational image. PIB

Representational image. PIB

- Indira Gandhi rewarded her special assistant Rajinder Kumar Dhawan — who started as a stenographer — with the rank of joint secretary in the Central government.

- Rajiv Gandhi reached out to Sam Pitroda, a telecom engineer by training, to see India through the telecommunication revolution. Pitroda served as the advisor to the prime minister on his technology mission. He was also the founding chairman of India's Telecom Commission. He also served as advisor to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, carrying the rank of a Cabinet minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovation.

- Siddhartha Shankar Ray, a veteran Congress leader, former Chief Minister of West Bengal and former Governor of Punjab was appointed India's Ambassador to the United States in 1992.

- Some of the best performing governors of the Reserve Bank of India were economists, with a body of relevant work behind them.

> Sir Osborne Smith, first Governor of RBI (1935-1937) was a professional banker who served for 20 years with the Bank of New South Wales and 10 years with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
> Of the 22 RBI governors in Independent India, only 10 have been from civil services. Even the Planning Commission, now NITI Aayog has had the privilege of hosting some of the best brains, who were not career bureaucrats.

To clear the air, hiring lateral recruits is not corporatisation by any stretch of the imagine for three reasons. First, the power to make laws continues to be with elected representatives, and thankfully there is no corporate intervention when the electorate casts its votes.

Second, we need to appreciate the difference between regulation and administration. In the truest sense, the role of a bureaucrat is to administer the laws and ensure social support reaches the last-mile beneficiary. This once again steers clear of any corporate influence.

Last, but not least, in the age of a vigilant media and active citizenry equipped with technology at any given point of time, it is impossible for a civil servant to influence any policy that will favour a particular corporate and get away with it, without the invisible hand having its origins in the galleries of legislature. Even the Nirav Modi or 2G scam is alleged to have had tacit support from multiple lobbies, and isn't just the handiwork of a few civil servants.

Bid to encourage nepotism is an overstretch

Personally, I am rather amused to come across influencers and supposedly well-read individuals who have interpreted the Government of India’s initiative for lateral recruitments as an invitation for nepotism and induction of like-minded individuals, who will then play by the lobby. This is an overstretch and an outcome of absolute lack of knowledge regarding the functioning of Indian bureaucracy. For the greater good of naysayers and deliberately misguided minds, here are a few clarifications:

- As stated earlier, civil servants don’t make laws. They just facilitate ministers by providing data, research, and documentation. The ultimate decision lies with elected representatives, who are much smarter than their disposition often suggests.

- To address the concerns of an ideological takeover, it must be acknowledged that every individual cultivates a certain ideology. In a democracy like India, where the government is elected every five years, at some point in a civil servant's life, s/he is bound to serve a government that is in alignment with personal ideology. However, this doesn't stop the civil servant from delivering during the other terms.

- It is outrageous to underestimate the intelligence of a sitting civil servant by assuming s/he follows the instructions from superiors, without batting an eyelid, even when s/he is ideologically aligned to the establishment. At the same time, it is naïve to believe that lateral entrants will be mere ideological stenographers or mouthpieces of corporates. I'd urge the cynics to meet some seasoned civil servants turned politicians like Yashwant Sinha, Hardeep Puri, Ajay Kumar, who have delivered at both ends of the spectrum and glean their honest opinion. At the same time, share a conversation with private sector hawks-turned-politicians like Jayant Sinha whose experience in the corporate makes them apt for crisis management, strategic decision-making and deal with failures without becoming distraught.

Revolving door policy: Babus are not indispensable

The 'revolving door' policy refers to a system, similar to the private sector, where public servants can join, quit (take a sabbatical) and re-join the services based on available vacancies and skill sets of the applicant, without age or experience-related restriction. This ensures that officers in service have the freedom to take up assignments of their choice and pave the way for their professional growth based on personal preferences. This not only helps the officers nourish their careers, but also maintains a fluid talent pool that prevents the germination of any sort of bureaucratic nexus.

The Narendra Modi government has taken sustained steps to eventuate increased efficiency and transparency within the bureaucratic system. For example, a decision of the government of the day to introduce a 360° performance review and move beyond Annual Confidential Reports for performance assessment of civil servants is also a welcome step directed towards weeding out non-performers.

For decades now, babudom has had its way through governance lapses, seated on the sheer lack of accountability that their jobs repose in them. Do you remember any civil servant who was named, shamed and blamed for a fiduciary scam or collapse of a bridge? No – they are usually transferred and the file is closed.

It is high time we agree that civil servants are not irreplaceable and a one-time examination success cannot be a lifelong insurance to livelihood. India is a competitive nation, where meritocracy and consistent delivery is a non-negotiable clause — both within and outside the governance regime. I am hopeful, that we will eventually see India through civil service reforms. As the next step, let us open doors for lateral entry at public sector banks and government enterprises.​

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 13:30:55 IST

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