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Saturday, Nov 23, 2019

Lateral entry into India’s civil services is important but insufficient

Thoughtful retired IAS officers have correctly pointed to the need for more fundamental administrative reforms. This experiment needs a senior officer to help select and mentor the new hires

analysis Updated: Jun 19, 2018 11:08 IST
Ravi Venkatesan
Ravi Venkatesan
The IAS continues to attract very bright young talent through a fair and competitive examination
The IAS continues to attract very bright young talent through a fair and competitive examination(Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Despite the many concerns and predictably strident objections, the government’s decision to cautiously experiment with bringing 10 lateral hires into the IAS is important and necessary but insufficient.

Few institutions are as urgently in need of renewal as our civil service. While there are plenty of extraordinary and upright officers, the prevailing view is that the IAS has failed to keep up with the needs of modern India and has become increasingly self-serving with too many of its officers seen as corrupt and compromised. In this context, the lateral hiring of 10 joint secretaries is an important experiment. Past success stories of lateral induction — such as Mantosh Sondhi, Vijay Kelkar, Manmohan Singh and Raghuram Rajan — have been occasional rather than systematic. It is important that an institution as vital and complex as the IAS have a way to both continuously induct new talent and develop internal talent at all levels. Done right, this will ensure a continuous injection of new perspectives and energy. Every successful organisation and species needs the continuous and selective introduction of new DNA to remain vigorous and relevant.

However, lateral hiring at a senior level is notoriously difficult and uncertain even in the private sector. Even when the new hires are competent individuals, fitting into an established culture is not easy. A lot will have to be done to make this attempt at grafting new talent into the IAS successful. The most important is careful hiring. The new hires will have to be real leaders who are motivated to help build the nation, not merely those attracted by the prestige, power and perks of the job. They will need to have a healthy dose of urgency, courage and tenacity to remain independent and accomplish things in the face of many obstacles. The skill to lead by influence matters far more than the expertise they are ostensibly being hired for. Such leaders are extremely rare anywhere; why then should they be motivated to join this risky experiment? Ideally, this experiment needs a senior sponsor, perhaps even the cabinet secretary or principal secretary, who will help select and mentor the new hires, monitor progress and provide crucial aircover when necessary.

Another risk is dispersing the new talent across many ministries. To succeed, it is often helpful to have a critical mass of new talent concentrated in a few areas so that there is a mutual support network. Most of all, this attempt to infuse talent should be seen as what it is: an experiment. There must be a conscious attempt to learn from this and make course corrections when necessary. Merely hiring 10 individuals and leaving them to swim or sink will accomplish little more than making future attempts even harder.

Good and necessary as this experiment is, it is insufficient to change an entrenched institution like the IAS. Thoughtful retired IAS officers have correctly pointed to the need for more fundamental administrative reforms. The IAS continues to attract very bright young talent through a fair and competitive examination. If these high potential youngsters systematically fail to live up to their potential and if the known inadequacies of the service have great persistence, then it is the very fundamentals of the system that must be examined and reformed. The hiring of a few joint secretaries, no matter how extraordinary these individuals may be, is not going to fix what has led to the systematic weakening of this institution. Numerous administrative reforms commissions have made specific recommendations to strengthen the administrative service which successive governments have largely ignored. As with every other complex organisation, elements of the solution as well as the people who can reform the system already exist inside the IAS. There are still many extraordinary leaders within the system who are waiting for the call to unleash a transformation from within. However, unless there is the political will to address the well-known and documented systemic issues that cause the IAS to underperform, the hiring of a handful of talent from outside will be tantamount to rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

India has become a low-trust society of vested and conflicting interests.. We must learn to temporarily suspend our entrenched views and suspicions about every intended action of any government, and conduct intentional experiments which allow us, as Deng Xiaoping once put it, to“cross the river by feeling the stones.”

Ravi Venkatesan is chairman of Bank of Baroda

The views expressed are personal