Professionalising governance

| Updated on June 11, 2018 Published on June 11, 2018

Lateral recruitments in the bureaucracy are a good idea, provided there is transparency

By allowing lateral entry into top, decision-making levels of the bureaucracy, the Centre has taken a bold first step towards reforming India’s Byzantine administrative set-up. The idea behind throwing open about 10 posts of Joint Secretary level across ministries and departments is to invite expertise and specialisation. For example, specialist inputs will be very useful in WTO negotiations, or dealing with intellectual property or services, where an error of judgment or a lapse of understanding can have serious socio-economic impact. The same holds true for climate change negotiations and financial services agreements. Our top bureaucracy, particularly the IAS, is likely to be well informed across a range of subjects, given their years of grassroots experience. But as the experience of public sector undertakings being run by IAS officials tells us, they may not be the best of managers or specialists. There is a paucity of specialists at higher levels; this is despite officials being sent on training programmes to this end. Finally, a dogged complacency seems to prevail — this is something that lateral recruits may disrupt, with new ideas and methods. To be sure, lateral entry in government is an idea that has been around for a while, with Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia being sterling examples of lateral recruits. The top posts of public sector banks have rightly been thrown open to lateral entrants. The NITI Aayog floated this idea about a year ago. In 2005, Prime Minister Singh had mooted a mid-career review to pick the best for top posts, but none of that happened.

There cannot be any denying that the bureaucracy has let the country down. The IAS, as the creamy layer of an already privileged bureaucracy, has failed to deliver in terms of governance and accountability. While politicians are pilloried for corruption and misuse of public office, the less visible bureaucrats are hardly better. They have not acted as the sturdy ‘steel frame’ that Sardar Patel had envisioned them to be. A shake-up is to be welcomed. Besides, a democratically elected government is entitled to tweak the bureaucracy to fulfil its mandate.

However, the Centre must ensure that its selection process is above board. Individuals picked must be of unquestionable integrity and credentials. There should be no suggestion of conflict of interest, an issue that cropped up in the UK some years ago with respect to corporate executives on deputation to the energy ministry. For such reforms to acquire credibility, they must be accompanied by steps to uphold institutions, such as the Central Information Commission. The Centre needs to alter perceptions here; else, its efforts may go down as a throwback to Indira Gandhi’s ‘committed bureaucracy’, accountable to none and running roughshod over institutions.

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Published on June 11, 2018
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