Lateral entry in to civil services is the reform India needs

by Khushboo Upreti

A recent notification by Department Of Personnel and Training has been garnering attention. It invites applications for the post of Joint Secretary (JS) in ten different departments. The post, normally filled by IAS officers, invites people working at comparable levels in private companies, consultancies, multinational organizations, autonomous bodies, universities and research institutes. State and Union Territory government officials and those working at PSUs at an equivalent level are also invited to apply. The recruitment will be on a contract basis for a term of three to five years, and candidates over the age of 40 years with at least 15 years of experience are eligible.

This is a landmark decision. Even though outsiders like Arvind Subramanium and Raghuram Rajan have occupied key positions in the government in the past, the application process has been fairly opaque. This announcement introduces a systematic and transparent way, in lieu of the authorities handpicking individuals. It sets the stage for introducing lateral entry into all government departments later.


Immediately after independence, India needed a bureaucratic structure which could act as a binding agent and aide the central planning process, besides acting as a force for social change. However, times have changed since the 1950s. Socio-economic development continues to be a pressing need, even while its nature and dimensions have transformed. Therefore, the bureaucracy requires expert assistance and credible information, so as to deliver public services effectively.

Ailing bureaucratic structure

The bureaucracy as it exists today, guarantees promotions to IAS officers, mainly due to an exam they cleared years ago. Thus, few people get weeded out for suboptimal performance. At most, the penalty may lead to fringe postings. This inevitably kills any external incentive for them to be competitive and competent at their job.

Moreover, in the course of their tenure, bureaucrats tend to dabble with miscellaneous departments beyond their area of specialisation. For instance, a political science major might get posted in departments like IT and finance during his stint with the IAS. This may lead to decisions which aren’t best tailored to meet the demands of the day.  A specialisation through experience may also be hard to come by, since as many as 68% of IAS officers get transferred in less than 18 months. Moreover, bureaucracy also faces the prospect of succumbing to political pressure which might colour the decisions they take.

The fallout of all this has a bearing on the state of health, education and other social services in India.

In the right direction

Given this backdrop, the introduction of lateral entry into governmental departments is a step in the right direction. Regardless of how well structured the UPSC entrance is, by their very nature, examinations are arbitrary and cannot truly gauge an individual’s practical calibre. Thus, it is important to accord individuals a second chance. This is exactly what the prospect of a lateral entry does. It considers appointments at JS level based on whether the candidates possess the requisite specialisations, while also being capable administrators who can put their experience to good use.

Introducing private players is also likely to bring in fresh perspective, especially that of an outsider who has faced the effects of government policies as an external stakeholder. Moreover, given the nature of private businesses, these candidates might also be open to calculated risks and social innovations – a tradition sorely lacking in the Indian bureaucracy.

More importantly, in such a scenario of increased competition, the bureaucrats are forced to step up and improve the quality of their work. Their current position is akin to the complacency experienced by PSUs and private businesses in the pre-1990s period, and the spirit of innovation which competition instilled in them thereafter.

Dangers ahead

All the benefits surmised above notwithstanding, the contentions raised by the opposition aren’t without basis.

Appointments by governments are always in the danger of being politicised. Thus, the present dispensation has shown a penchant for making controversial appointments (FTII, ICHR et al). The notification doesn’t specify who will constitute the selection committee. In order to ensure transparency and merit-based appointments, it would bid well for government to let the UPSC, an independent body, make the appointments.

Furthermore, it is important to ensure that reservations for SC/ST are guaranteed in case the move gets implemented for other roles as well in the future.

Opening the door to reform

Lateral entry is the way forward. One can hope for the pilot project to be implemented across all government levels at a later stage through proper institutionalisation and transparency. However, the legitimacy of the entire process and consequent success of the move, is contingent on who makes the appointments.

The Inclusion of private players as part of innovations to the bureaucratic structure is imperative to ensure good governance. This is not to say that lateral entry is the only reform possible. It may be the first of possibly many others. However, it’s undoubtedly a move geared towards a greater objective.


Khushboo Upreti is a writing analyst at Qrius