Lateral entry, blind alley
Gulzar Natarajan, IAS; 1999
As the Seventh Pay Commission prepares its recommendations, the debate on lateral entry into the civil services has restarted. Supporters have long argued in favour of lateral entrants being recruited at the levels of joint secretary, additional secretary and secretary to the government of India.
The conventional wisdom on lateral entry is that it infuses fresh energy and thinking into an insular, complacent and often archaic bureaucracy. It enables the entry of right-minded professionals and the adoption of best practices for improving governance. However, this belief should be weighed against our country’s sociopolitical context, as well as the complex nature of our public policy challenges.
Mainstream arguments in favour of lateral entry underestimate these realities and are informed by the belief that its success in mature presidential democracies like the United States can be readily replicated here. They underestimate the recruitment, functional and operational difficulties associated with lateral entry.
For a start, a generalised system of lateral entry poses formidable recruitment challenges. Given the erosion of state capability and institutional credibility at all levels, it runs the risk of degenerating into an uncontrollable “spoils” system. This, coupled with the inherent problems of revolving-door personnel management, raises concerns about accountability. There is a strong likelihood that, far from infusing fresh energy, lateral entry could further enfeeble the bureaucracy.
Functionally, the cutting edge of implementation of the policies formulated in the vast majority of such postings is at the subnational level, most often at the level of local government. These policies are implemented in a complex and dynamic ecosystem, involving negotiations between multiple interest groups, several bureaucratic and political layers, as well as numerous resource and state-capability constraints. In the absence of adequate field experience, lateral entrants entrusted with policy formulation are likely to have only a limited appreciation of these challenges. A few sanitised visits to primary health centres or cursory interactions with field nurses do not equip you with the skills to formulate healthcare policies for a vast and diverse country like India.
Then there are the operational challenges associated with lateral entry. Any infusion of cherry-picked external talent into only high-profile posts, apart from adversely affecting the morale of incumbents, is also likely to distort the incentives of entrants. How do we mitigate the incentive distortions that are likely with a revolving-door approach, by which market talent moves back and forth between the government and corporate world? Restrictions imposed to address these distortions are only likely to turn away the best and brightest, precisely those sought to be attracted through lateral entry.
Further, will the best market talent be attracted by a lateral entry process that offers a mix of high-profile posts and unglamorous, even drudgery-filled, ones? Would such talent be willing to rough it out in a complex and uncertain, sometimes frustrating, work environment for a 10 to 15-year a bandaid on gangrene.