Privatising the IAS is a mistake
Does the civil service need experts from outside? No, an IAS officer is an expert in the most difficult of all domains—public administration
The NITI Aayog has recommended to the prime minister that “lateral entry” from the private sector should be introduced in the civil services at all levels, from secretary to deputy secretary. The PMO is reportedly considering the matter seriously. A bunch of re-employed bureaucrats are seeking to undermine the vision of someone like Sardar Patel who had cautioned the Constituent Assembly that India would disintegrate if it did not have a strong and independent civil service.
To be candid, the IAS has not lived up to the Sardar’s expectations. It has, to an alarming degree, become politicised, slothful, complacent, venal and self-serving. But it has also delivered significant results. Its officers are still chosen by the most rigorous, objective and fair selection process in the country.
If it has faltered this is primarily due to the deteriorating quality of the political executive, particularly after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and its credo of a “committed bureaucracy”. It has not been allowed the independence and the freedom to “speak out its advice” which Sardar Patel had stipulated as an essential condition for its effectiveness. Political governments have used the tools of postings, transfers, re-employment, charge sheets, and of late tickets to elections to subvert, entice and intimidate the members of the service to conform. That it still functions most of the time is a tribute to its relevance.
But instead of attending to the problems mentioned above (which have been flagged time and again by various Administrative Reforms Commissions and expert committees) the government is , as usual, opting for a quick fix which will further erode the efficiency of the IAS. The ostensible reason being trotted out is that the IAS lacks domain knowledge in a fast-evolving, technology-driven world, and hence “ domain experts” from the private sector need to be inducted laterally. This is specious and mischievous too, as I will explain in a moment.
The word “domain” here is synonymous with “technical”, meaning that the IAS needs technically qualified people from the outside. Not true. It already has enough. In the 2017 batch itself out of the 264 selected, 118 (44.69 per cent) are from an engineering background: if one adds on the doctors, IT graduates, etc, the percentage comes closer to 50. Among the 20 toppers in this batch, 19 are engineers and one is a doctor! There is enough technical expertise in the IAS.
Secondly, the “domain” argument is misleading sophistry and betrays a complete lack of understanding of what the role of a permanent civil service in a democracy should be. The civil servant is not required to be a technical expert. He stands at the point where technology intersects with the development needs of the common man, which can vary from village to village. There can be no one size fits all solutions, no matter how good the technology, as both demonetisation and GST have recently demonstrated. The civil servant’s role is that of the synthesiser—to assimilate a technology or idea, adapt it to the local context, and then extend it to the hundreds of millions, making mid-course corrections wherever required. The limited, one-dimensional vision that technocrats have would make them unsuitable for this role.
To fulfil this role an officer needs to have deep grass-roots experience, and an IAS officer is uniquely qualified for this. On an average he spends the first 10 years of his career in “the field”, getting to know the dynamics of the actual workings of the government at the village, panchayat and district levels. This is an invaluable input for him when he moves on to the Secretariat or Delhi to a policy-making level. A lateral entry recruit would completely lack this experience.
In a government nothing is purely technical. Take, for instance, the construction of a dam, which the proponents of lateral entry would regard as a job for a domain (engineering) expert. It is much, much more for it involves areas an engineer would have no clue about: acquisition of land, resettlement and rehabilitation of oustees, diversion of forest areas, preparation of environmental impact and social impact assessments, formulation and implementation of environmental management plans, financial closure for the project, negotiating PPPs with the buyers, etc.
Building the dam is only a small part. It is here that the IAS officer’s role becomes indispensable: he has typically worked in a dozen different departments, his knowledge of administration is both deep and eclectic, he does not exist in a silo like all domain experts do. He is supremely qualified to coordinate the functioning of a government that works through a hundred ministries at the Centre and in the states.
An IAS officer is a domain expert in the most difficult and complex of all domains—public administration, which is a witch’s brew of policies, demographics, politics, social imperatives, religion, law and order. He is an expert at balancing all these, sometimes contradictory elements, and still moves the nation forward. A private sector whiz kid, whose only focus has been maximising of profit, can never get the balance right.
Lateral entry will be a regressive move towards the spoils system, which is perhaps why the government is keen on it. It will give it the freedom to appoint loyalists, fellow travellers, favourites and ideological compatibles. But these birds of passage will have no stakes in the service. In one generation there shall be no permanent civil service left. The PPP model may work for commercial projects, but a permanent civil service cannot function on this model. The government should instead urgently address the issues highlighted above. By all means throw out the bathwater, maybe even a baby or two, but for God’s sake don’t discard the bathtub itself!
served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh