Last week, UPSC issued a notification for the lateral recruitment of three joint secretary level and 27 director level posts on a contract basis in various departments of the government of India. Activists and leaders belonging to opposition parties from SC, ST, and OBCs protested on social media and #StopLateralEntry trended on Twitter for some time. Their main concern was that the notification lacked fairness, transparency, and representation of SC, ST, and OBCs.
Although currently lateral entry happens at a very small scale and this seems like a pilot project, it is important to understand the principle behind it and why the concerns of those who are opposing it need to be addressed.
Some scholars have brought out the limitation of 100% lifetime career civil service. Once people enter the service based on one civil service examination, there is no way to test if they are competent to handle specialized and complex portfolios allotted to them, except through the ritual of annual performance appraisals which are often not effective. It is here that lateral entry theoretically can bring fresh talent, ideas, and perspectives into policy making. Allowing experts from academia, the private sector, NGOs, the public sector, and state governments can bring in passionate and highly competent people and create a healthy pressure on lifetime civil servants not just to perform but also to change the work culture which smacks of the remnants of a colonial police state as against a democratic welfare state. What should be the proportion of lateral entry to make a substantive impact on the quality of policy design and work culture, can be debated.
Imagine a passionate and competent educationist made joint secretary in the education ministry, a passionate welfare economist managing poverty alleviation programs, or a passionate anti-caste lawyer dealing with the portfolio of prevention of atrocities against SC-STs. This does happen regularly in developed countries; analysing the kind of people the Biden administration has picked for various portfolios provides an idea. The US has a system of lateral entry, where about 4000 new officers are appointed as “political appointees” with the inauguration of a new president, allowing incoming presidents to work on their agenda more effectively. That is a model which India had rejected – adopting the British model of lifetime ‘neutral’ civil service where civil servants remain politically neutral and formulate technically sound policies according to the will of the political executive within the framework of the constitution. However, the current working of the civil services neither gives us the confidence that Indian civil service has given us political neutrality and the outcomes that the British system visualized nor the passion and competence which the American system brings. Lateral entry, in my opinion, opens a small window to get the best from the American and British system and puts pressure on the system to reform and perform.
However, for lateral entry to deliver and more importantly win the confidence of the most oppressed sections of society, it must be fair, transparent, and egalitarian. This second part is tricky. You have (supposedly) a fair, transparent, and egalitarian process for direct recruitment of civil servants through UPSC but how do you ensure a similar process for lateral entry? This is where governments may be tempted to go for a ‘spoils system’. They might recruit the people they like ideologically or whose approach to the particular sector may be aligned with the ruling party. It is here a constitutionally empowered agency such as UPSC can play a role based on a selection process approved by parliament. Such a selection process should ensure fairness, transparency, and equity.
To ensure equitable representation of SC, ST, and OBCs single-post-cadre-based reservation rules will have to be amended by treating, as an example, all joint secretaries (or directors) recruited through the lateral process, for the purpose of selection, as a single cadre. This equitable distribution of lateral entry roles to all sections of the society requires a broader understanding of the idea of expertise. Expertise isn’t built in a vacuum; it develops in a particular social and ideological context. Two agriculturists from different social groups believing in two different economic ideologies can come with a starkly different set of solutions for the same problem farmers are facing. What adequate representation of all sections of the society does is it theoretically (assuming all people use their agency) brings diverse perspectives on the same policy table, with the net outcome being acceptable to all.
Some might say entrusting the task of selection to UPSC will automatically ensure fairness. Many, including myself, who have appeared in UPSC interviews believe that it has been less fair to candidates from SC, ST, and OBCs. The current lateral selection process gives enormous discretion in the hands of UPSC not just by making it entirely driven by the interview process but also that shortlisting of applications for interviews is not based on sound objective criteria. As per media reports, for the selection of nine joint secretaries last year, only 89 candidates were shortlisted out of over 3000 candidates who filled detailed application forms. As per UPSC, candidates are to be shortlisted based on desirable qualifications, the quantum of experience, and educational qualifications each of which could be contested as these are not prone to quantification and comparability. The best check against this discretionary power in the hands of UPSC is fair representation and transparency. UPSC should publish the list of the candidates shortlisted and rejected for the interview giving information, inter-alia, about the social category and how each candidate stands on the above shortlisting criteria.
Lateral entry is not a panacea for the ills of governance. It could be one of the many initiatives needed to ensure not just “good” but also “our” government for “we the people” who often feel let down. Over the years, the US reduced the spoils system, and the UK opened for lateral; we can learn from the best of the two. There might be some misuse, but rule of law should prevail.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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