Lateral entry: good idea, bad motive?

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The central government’s move to appoint specialists and experts at senior levels of the bureaucracy through lateral entry is a welcome reform measure. It has advertised 10 joint secretary posts in sectors like agriculture, economic affairs and infrastructure, to be filled with “talented and motivated Indian nationals” with good educational qualifications and domain knowledge and 15 years’ working experience. The posts are open to professionals working in the public and private sectors. Public administration has become very complex and specialised knowledge is needed for policy-formulation and decision-making in many areas. The focus of the present bureaucracy, with the IAS as its core, is on developing general skills and competence through postings in various fields. By the time the officer acquires specialised skills, he or she reaches middle age and would lack the vigour and dynamism of youth. The new move will help to catch administrators relatively young and utilise their expertise well. 

The idea of lateral entry into the administration is not new. The first Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) in 1965 and the second ARC in 2005 had both recommended induction of personnel with specialised skills in the administrative services through a transparent and institutionalised mechanism. Niti Aayog recently called for it in its thee-year action agenda. It is not a proposal without a precedent. Manmohan Singh and Montek Singh Ahluwalia were direct recruits who entered the bureaucracy by the side door. Nandan Nilekani had a great tenure in government as the head of the Unique Identity Authority of India. These rare appointments should now become more common and need to be institutionalised. The bureaucracy has a reputation for lethargy, status quoism and obstructionism, apart from inadequate knowledge and refusal to learn new things. It is not that 10 new joint secretaries will change the work culture and profile of the bureaucracy. But the move can set a trend and its success will be watched. 

But the plan has created apprehensions, too, especially because it has come just a year ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections. There is a fear that it may be used to appoint ideologically-committed people who will support the government in key positions. A move to change the role of the foundation course for civil services has already created a controversy. Nepotism and other ills of the selection system can defeat the aims of the move. There is also the question whether the right candidates would apply because the appointment is on contract for a period of only three years. In view of these, the government should evolve a broad political consensus over the need for lateral entry and work out a proper process to implement it.

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Lateral entry: good idea, bad motive?

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