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A modest proposal to improve governance

For every post in the central government from joint secretary onwards, there should an open competition

columns Updated: Aug 27, 2016 21:17 IST
Bringing technically qualified people into government could greatly energise the administration. It would make it more open, transparent, focused and effective
Bringing technically qualified people into government could greatly energise the administration. It would make it more open, transparent, focused and effective(Shutterstock)

I think that from the level of joint secretary upwards, all government jobs should be subject to open competition. At that level one can bring in professionals with expertise, and yet allow them to grow in the State system, before assuming larger responsibilities.

The Harvard economist Lant Pritchett has called India a “flailing state”. The signs are all around us; in the decaying government schools and the declining public hospitals, in the apathy and incompetence of the police, in the shocking state of our roads and transport systems, in the fouling of our air and water. There is also abundant statistical proof of how central and state governments are failing citizens; in the Annual State of Education Reports issued by Pratham, for example, or in the United Nations’ Human Development Report, which places India at a low 130th, more than 50 places below Sri Lanka, which got Independence more or less at the same time as us.

One major reason for this misgovernance is political corruption. I focus in this column on a second major reason, namely, the lack of professional expertise in government. For in no other democracy do generalists so comprehensively corner the top jobs at the higher levels of the administration. In no other modern society does a person, who got a high rank in an examination 35 years ago, automatically go on and be allotted a high-status, high-impact, and vastly important government job, based only or largely on that exam rank.

This dominance of a generalist civil service may have made sense when India was a colony or when, in the first, fraught years of freedom, the country had to be united. But it makes absolutely no sense now, when the government has to effectively meet the challenges of a technologically complex and rapidly changing world. If we are seriously interested in improving the quality and effectiveness of governance in our country, then this hegemony of the IAS must go.

Read: ‘Corrupt IAS aren’t getting punished. Honest are’

When Narendra Modi became prime minister, his more intelligent admirers hoped that he would facilitate the lateral entry of experts into higher levels of government. For he had come with an impressive mandate, and was known to be a tough, if not ruthless, operator.

Alas, he has done no such thing. The dominance of the under-qualified, risk-averse, and politically subservient IAS in the central government continues. In fact, in recent years this dominance has actually expanded; as retired IAS officers are given top posts in regulatory institutions such as Trai and the CIC, posts that should really be filled by acknowledged experts in these fields.

I should make it clear at this stage that I hold no animus against IAS officers. Many of the finest public servants I know are or were in the IAS. Indeed, I have dedicated two of my books to IAS officers I admire. Yet I do strongly believe that this thoroughgoing dominance of the IAS at the upper reaches of administration is not healthy for our democracy.

Read: The civil servant who spoke truth to power

So I offer this modest proposal; for every post in the central government from joint secretary onwards, there should an open competition. Let us say there is a vacancy at that level in the ministry of petroleum. Must this necessarily filled by an IAS officer? Surely a suitable candidate can be found in the private sector, among those who have worked in the petrochemicals industry but now want to contribute to public service, and be active in policy formulation.

This proposal would not, of course, exclude a capable IAS officer, who has the ability to learn, who is innovative, and clear-sighted. Nor it would exclude officers from the other central services. What my proposal would however do is widen the catchment area of possible applicants. For, there is no shortage of outstanding professionals who, having assured themselves financial security, would like in their late thirties or early forties to move into public service. These may be lawyers who want to join the law ministry, doctors who hope to contribute to health policy, and scholars who wish to influence education policy.

I think that from the level of joint secretary upwards, all government jobs should be subject to open competition. At that level one can bring in professionals with expertise, and yet allow them to grow in the State system, before assuming larger responsibilities. Higher posts, such as those of additional secretary and secretary, should be filled in the same fashion, with career civil servants invited to apply, and professionals from outside government encouraged to apply too.

Read: On top, but still not home?

Lateral entrants have several attributes that the typical IAS officer does not. The most important of these, of course, is domain expertise. Lateral entrants are also less likely to be risk-averse, since they can always return to the jobs they left in the private sector. They shall be more willing to stand up for their views, partly out of conviction, partly because they have not been habituated to the deference to netas that comes so naturally to the typical IAS officer.

Bringing technically qualified people into government could greatly energise the administration. It would make it more open, transparent, focused and effective. Ideally, it should be made operative at the level of the states as well as the Centre. I offer this proposal off my own bat, of course. I have no standing in public life, no affiliation with any politician or political party. But both as historian and citizen I believe that such reform is vital to make our government perform better. For it is truly tragic that, as things now stand, so many young, intelligent, and patriotic Indians think they can find fulfilment only in the private sector or in civil society. They should have the opportunity to bring their zest and idealism to the State, which remains, both for good and for ill, the most powerful and influential agent of social change in India.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India

Twitter: @Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal