The Union Public Services Commission building, New Delhi
The Union Public Services Commission building, New Delhi

Should the government allow lateral entry into the civil services?

Once such a bureaucratic process is set in motion, it will become a precedent for all time and could be cited and manipulated by future governments at the centre and the states to plant people regardless of their worth.
By Shailaja Chandra
UPDATED ON JUL 18, 2017 04:35 PM IST

The induction of non-career civil servants is soon to become a reality in the central government. Although the suggestion was categorically denied only last year, clearly the shortage of officers at the middle level in central ministries and departments has necessitated a U-turn.

The idea of lateral induction is not new. It was recommended by the 2nd Administrative Reform Commission, high level committees appointed by different governments and a plethora of think tanks. Newsworthy is the fact that now the department of personnel has been directed to set the stage for making selections. Although newspapers suggest that a committee headed by the Cabinet secretary would be responsible for implementing the process of selection, one trusts this aspect will be thought through prudently.

At present, the numbers to be inducted are relatively small – around 40. That may help tide over the current deficit of middle level officers in the central government but does not address a much bigger problem – the overall 20% shortfall of IAS cadre officers alone in 24 state cadres. The Baswan Committee (2016) has shown how large states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have a deficit of 75 to over 100 officers and their unwillingness to sponsor officers to go to the Centre on deputation is understandable. Lateral induction is, therefore, a small step towards essential housekeeping in central government staffing and ought to be supported.

But joint secretaries in the government are not merely performing jobs which can be filled by seeking applications. Officers at this level are not recruited to market products or made responsible for generating higher profits. They are expected to present well-researched and sourced information in a manner that the political executive can understand, weigh and consider options before making equitable and effective policy choices. The capacity to do this requires a different order of acumen and enormous caution has to be exercised while making recruitment. The processes themselves must pass the highest standards of probity and must be legally unassailable.

Once an in-house bureaucratic process is set in motion, it will become a precedent for all time and may be well be cited and manipulated by future governments at the Centre and the states to plant people regardless of their worth. In the past few years different state governments have inducted and promoted “committed” (malleable) officers as a reward for favours done. Others have entrusted policy-making to people with no knowledge of fiscal prudence or administrative propriety- leave aside the finer nuances of the Constitution or the law, to steer the ship of State. Once the Centre opens the doors to lateral induction through its own machinery, it can lead to a deluge of inductions in the states and at the Centre too in times to come. Entrusting the job of selection to a body supervised by the Union Public Service Commission would be the only alternative to ensure that merit is the sole criteria and no scope exists for preferential induction on grounds of region, community or ideological allegiance.

Comparisons with other countries may be relevant in theory but is not so in practice. One has to bear in mind the difference between a career-based system -- India, France, Italy, Japan, Korea and Spain are examples thereof -and position- based systems which function in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Britain and in the US. In the career-based system the advantage is a commonality of a working culture and effective networks which facilitate speed of communication and understanding. The well-known shortcomings are the spread of complacency, an adherence to the status quo which kill new ideas. A position-based system is firstly political in nature and often transitory. It cannot be merged into a career based system without taking care to imbue the induction system itself with the highest degree of transparency and independence.

First inductions through the competitive examinations must expand incrementally in keeping with the country’s needs. Second, only UPSC has the mandate to make recruitment to civil service jobs under the Constitution and the civil service statutes. Looking outside the UPSC will destroy the tenets of parliamentary democracy, which is inescapably linked to placing reliance on a merit based, politically neutral civil service.

Shailaja Chandra is former chief secretary, Delhi

The views expressed are personal

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