End reign of generalists

UPSC

The buzz in bureaucratic circles this month has been around civil service reform, after the Modi government introduced lateral entry for a handful of Joint Secretary posts in New Delhi. But leave aside, for now, the debate over lateral entry. This is the right time to highlight a more fundamental problem with how Indian civil servants are recruited: no major country in the world today selects its diplomats, tax collectors, police officers, and railway officials based on one single common examination. And, for years now, many commentators, researchers and politicians from across the ideological spectrum have pointed to what they believe is the lack of specialisation and fresh thinking within India’s civil services.

As far back as 2015, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said that it was time to “replace bureaucrats with professionals and sector experts”, asking for the “[infusion] of fresh energy and ideas in governance.” In the year that followed, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs noted the need for domain experts in the Foreign Service, pointing out that diplomats are now required to serve on technical issues such as climate change and cyber security.

Now, in its latest notification opening up lateral entry, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has echoed these sentiments, saying: “The proposal of lateral entry is aimed at bringing in fresh ideas and new approaches to governance and also to augment manpower.”

The UPSC chooses officers for a range of disparate services — from the Police Service and the Revenue Service, to the Foreign Service and even the Railway Traffic Service — through one common exam. Yet, the complexities of the modern world mean that each of these agencies and departments has its own specialised needs in skills and aptitude — issues of taxation are different from issues of policing and security; and issues of railway management have little in common with issues of diplomacy.

The generalist exam actively weeds out candidates who might be better suited for one service over another. Take the Foreign Service, arguably the biggest victim of a generalist exam. Most would agree that a student of international relations is better suited for a career in the Foreign Service than a student of, say, wildlife studies. Yet, in 2014, the UPSC preliminary exam asked a meagre four questions on international relations and geopolitics, while it featured as many as 17 on geography and wildlife.

The following year, the exam contained just eight questions on international relations, while it had 16 on geography and wildlife — putting aspiring diplomats, who might possibly be better suited for that job, at a significant disadvantage relative to students who had studied wildlife.

It gets worse in the next stage of the process, the main exam, where international relations is an optional subject, effectively meaning that a candidate for the Foreign Service can potentially proceed without answering a single question on geopolitics until the interview.

India’s common civil service exam comes from an era in which the requirements of policymaking were much less specialised and complex. In the 1800s, several Western governments appointed civil servants through a system of nominations, thereby subjecting the bureaucracy to political manipulation.

Calls for reform soon spread, primarily in Britain and the United States. In 1855, British bureaucrat Sir Charles Trevelyan co-authored a seminal report that urged the British Parliament to unify the civil services and conduct one common generalist exam for recruitment across multiple departments and ministries. Consequently, a Civil Service Commission was established the same year, and an annual exam was conducted in London for recruitment into a host of diverse positions — including for the Indian Civil Service. This was a truly British phenomenon; when America established a Civil Service Commission of its own in 1883, it refused to borrow the system of one exam for all jobs. In 1900, for instance, the US Commission conducted over 460 exams for various departments and positions.

That was the 1800s. By the second half of the 20th century, as the scope of governance expanded, even Britain began to shed its common examination, allowing instead for multiple channels of entry into the bureaucracy and accounting for the background knowledge of domain experts.

Today, both Britain and America follow a decentralised structure of recruitment: each agency and department selects suitable candidates depending on its own specific requirements, albeit subject to a broad set of general guidelines. Departments even offer fellowships to meritorious high school students to facilitate their higher education in areas of public policy, and their entry thereafter into government.

Critics of decentralisation would argue that India’s size and population do not allow for multiple tests; but then, take China -– the original inspiration for Britain’s common exam system. While China still conducts a common exam for all civil service aspirants as a screening test, recruitment is done separately by each department through its own set of specialised tests and interviews (and unlike the UPSC preliminary exam, as many as 25% of those who write the screening test often qualify for the specialised tests). Even in Singapore — a fellow inheritor of the British common exam system — civil servants are now recruited by each department through its own specialised Personnel Board, while the Public Service Commission now largely acts as a mediating authority.

India’s recruitment system is now ripe for reform, and there are many feasible alternatives to choose from. Each ministry could recruit its own civil servants through independent personnel boards, similar to Singapore’s. The objectivity of exam-based recruitment could still be retained by passing statutory guidelines which bind departments and ministries to retain examinations, while allowing them to choose the content of examination depending on the jobs that they seek to fill.

Even the general civil service exam could be temporarily retained, while alternative channels of recruitment are opened in order to give weightage to the experience and educational background of specialist applicants. This is not a problem without solutions; it is a problem without debate.

(The writer is a scholar of international affairs at Columbia University and a foreign affairs columnist)

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