A government that appointed a history graduate with thirty-eight years of ‘generalist’ experience as the Governor of the RBI, seems to have no sense of irony while proposing the lateral induction of as many as 400 so-called ‘domain experts’ from the private sector, at middle-management levels in the Government of India.
So, it would appear that framing and administering monetary policy, managing inflation, handling the banking crisis etc at the highest level requires little ‘domain expertise’, but carrying out the routine functions of a deputy secretary at the lower end of a ministry hierarchy does.
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Upside-Down Governance & A Volley Of Unasked Questions
The Modi government has the uncanny ability to offer solutions which chase the problems they are meant to solve. In other words, first work out a bold and dramatic answer to a question yet to be asked, announce it as a major reform, and then find an appropriate question to which the answer can fit. This was the case with demonetisation, and it is now the case with the proposed ‘lateral entry’ programme. This is governance turned upside-down.
There are a few clues as to why this is being done, and what purpose it is expected to serve.
Ostensibly, there is a scarcity of talent at policy levels, and this step is aimed at bridging that gap. How has this talent gap been assessed?
Is it based on an expert survey or is this another ‘generalist’ conclusion? Have the domain expertise requirements for each of the 400 posts up for lateral entry been separately and specifically listed out, the catchment area from where that specific expertise will be drawn identified, and the manner in which it will be assessed worked out? If not, how can it be said to bring in new expertise which is presently deficient?
There are more unasked questions about the purpose this disruptive measure is supposed to serve:
- Is it meant to bring in greater efficiency, and is it the case that the present lot of people on the job are inefficient?
- Is such a conclusion based on empirical evidence which has been scientifically analysed?
- Is it the lack of expertise that makes for inefficiency, or are there other, more important systemic deficiencies?
- Will this move invigorate the existing cadres or only demoralise them further, when they see that the hard-earned experience of working within the government system is considered inferior to experience acquired in the private sector?
- Will not reforming systems, processes and procedures foster greater efficiency, rather than just inducting unproven and untested talent?
What The Role Of A GoI Deputy Secretary Really Entails
It is evident that not only are there no satisfactory answers to these questions, but that the questions themselves have never been asked. The comfortable fuzziness of catchwords and buzzwords has replaced analytical rigour. Hype matters, substance does not.
The question we should be asking in choosing administrators is not whether they are specialists or generalists, but whether their skill sets, their experience, their aptitude meet the requirements of the functions they have to perform. The work content of a deputy secretary in a GoI Ministry is primarily to:
- collect and collate information,
- carry out interdepartmental consultations,
- consult domain experts in interconnected fields,
- prepare agenda notes/presentations/ discussion papers for higher level meetings,
- prepare answers for Parliament Questions,
- provide progress and Action Taken notes,
- analyse the inputs gathered — and put all this together in a form as to enable decision makers to take an informed decision.
This requires breadth and variety of experience rather than narrow subject matter specialisation. The domain expertise of an Air Traffic Controller, for example, would be wasted if s/he was required to prepare the Government’s Civil Aviation policy, just as the experience as a deputy secretary in that ministry would hardly equip such a person to head the Air Traffic Control Unit under the same ministry.
Why The ‘Specialist Vs Generalist’ Debate Is Bogus
One of the most annoying aspects of the conventional popular discourse on civil service/ public administration reform is the bogus and hackneyed specialist vs generalist debate. It has been fashionable for some time now to pay homage to the importance of bringing in specialists into mainstream governance, and move away from the allegedly primitive model of governance represented by the IAS and other Central Services. Much of this fashionable discourse is itself based on somewhat outmoded ideas of the industrial era, when ‘management’ was reified as an academic discipline, and precepts and ideas based on practices followed by large corporations were inducted, often inappropriately, into the public administration discourse.
This is a larger issue which requires more extensive discussion, but two points need to be made here.
First is that, any polarisation of ‘specialist’ versus ‘generalist’ is ridiculous because every aspect of administration or management requires inputs from a specialist as well as a generalist.
Both in government and public policy circles, and in corporate/business strategy circles, sectoral compartmentalization and narrow specialisation has given way to a team-based, multi-sectoral approach to problem solving, because each sector is inseparably interconnected with the other, and this interconnectedness must reflect in holistic policies and integrated actions.
The New Knowledge Economy Requires Multi-Sectoral Skills
Further, contrary to popular thinking, the new knowledge economy is moving in a direction which is multi/ interdisciplinary, where convergence skills are the most sought after. The best universities offer ‘convergence disciplines’ as an essential part of graduate and post-graduate programmes.
Subject boundaries are becoming more and more fluid so that even the classic binary of science and arts is disappearing.
In this context, the concept of ‘domain expertise’, as applied to public administration (or even business management), is universally undergoing a fundamental change. Therefore, as one moves to higher realms of administration/ management one would need greater skills in fusion, synthesis and integration rather than in fragmented specialization. In our case, by default the IAS was designed to provide its members a bewildering diversity of professional experiences so as to hone their integrative skills. It is these skills which are in abundance in the IAS and allied civil services. Instead of nurturing them and honing them further, such simple-minded attempts at reform only go to marginalise the talent already available.
The Dangers Of Lateral Entry
The proposal as it stands, flies in the face of the constitutional scheme envisaged for the All India Services by Sardar Patel and Dr Ambedkar. For them, the civil services were to act as a protective ring around the Constitution, shielding it from the vicissitudes of politics and centrifugal forces, and providing stability, continuity and endurance to governance. Their loyalties were/ are to the Constitution, and not the political masters in control of the government.
Those brought in under contract laterally, need not carry any such burden. Their loyalties will naturally lie with those who give them the contract.
At a time when politics is leaning dangerously towards a centralised, authoritarian, national security state with a strong, muscular leader committed to the ideology of cultural nationalism, and capable of abandoning the fundamental principles on which our Constitution is based without demur, the large-scale induction of chosen loyalists at strategic levels spells unprecedented danger. The insidiousness of intent is frightening.
(The author is a former IAS officer. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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