June 11, 2018

This is an unedited version of two comments that were published in ThePrint #talkpoint (here and here)

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

There is no doubt that while many bits of India are in the 21st and perhaps even 22nd centuries, we are all governed by a 19th century regulatory architecture administered by an early-20th century bureaucracy. The governance gap is not merely an obstacle to rapid economic growth. It is also an enduring source of social inequities and cultural fault lines.

If I were writing this in the mid-1980s, I’d say that there is a clear and present case for administrative reform right now. In 2018, we have to accept that it is no longer tenable, conscionable or politically safe to govern a $2 trillion economy with the status quo. There is no way the civil service can continue to deliver without developing deep specialisation in various domains of governance. Even the best general practitioner cannot carry out a simple angioplasty.

The Modi government’s apparent intention to reform the civil services is a recognition of this reality. In fact, administrative reform was one of the first things Manmohan Singh wanted to do when he became prime minister in May 2004. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) was constituted in 2005, and a group of ministers appointed to implement it in 2007.

Not much happened. Perhaps not much was allowed to happen. The institutional interests of the all-India services, and the bureaucratic politics among them, work towards the preservation of the status quo and incremental change.

Any move to reform the civil service must contend with a fundamental question: what is its purpose? Unlike in most countries, the civil service in India is not merely an administrative arm concerned with delivery of public services, but also an instrument of the social revolution that is enshrined in the Constitution. So we need to optimise for both efficiency and equity, which means we are likely to end up with something that’s neither the most efficient not the most equitable solution.

Therefore, if it wants to proceed with reforms, the Modi government must consult widely, be transparent with its thinking and process and be inclusive of various voices in society.

I have spent the past decade arguing that there is no way India can continue to govern itself using the 20th century civil service model”, and that it’s only a matter of how soon the government will open the civil service to professionals at different levels. That’s because most politicians have realised that they simply cannot deliver on the aspirations of the people without bringing in professional experts into the government.

Lateral entry at the joint secretary level is appropriate because it requires candidates to have both expertise and track record, instead of mere potential that can be observed at entry levels.

We can expect three kinds of objections to this move. First, from within the civil services, we can expect an immune reaction to a foreign body. Second, cynics will allege that the positions will be given to people who share political and ideological loyalty to the current government. Finally, there will be concerns over how such hiring will be compatible with goals of equity and social justice.

Let’s consider each in turn. We as citizens need not be too impressed by politics of bureaucracy, but need to be aware that individuals hired through such a process will face problems adjusting to working in the government. This is not to say that every IAS officer is ill-disposed towards lateral entry, and there will be some who will have a positive outlook towards the reform.

Will lateral entrants be more political and ideological than those produced by the current, ostensibly apolitical system? Perhaps yes, although it takes a lot of naïveté to believe our civil servants are apolitical and act in a non-partisan manner. The only defence against partisanship is public scrutiny, and that needs to be scaled up anyway.

Will lateral entry skirt around reservations? To the extent that jobs in the civil service have to comply with the constitutional requirements of social justice, lateral entry cannot be exempt. This does not necessarily mean that every set of positions open to lateral entry need to adhere to a fixed formula for reservations.

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