Lateral entry into top govt posts is the way forward

Many well-meaning politically elected leaders (especially chief ministers) who want to do good work for citizens are stuck. They have a limited talent pool of appointed officials. This pool is full of silos — IAS, IPS, IFS, IRS, IRSE, IRTS, State Civil Service and many others. Seniority concerns prevent more efficient appointed officials attaining greater responsibilities earlier in their career. The top slots usually have officials with short tenures, most of them wise, some otherwise.

Effective state capacity is largely dependent on leadership, both elected and appointed, at all three levels — city, state and union. How could India@75 improve law and order, courts, social, physical and soft infrastructure, efficient cities, e-governance, ease of doing business and other essential state functions by 2022? 

A key learning is that most leadership-level appointments at the city, state and union levels are from a tiny number of “eligible” officers. It is imperative to move to a transparent “lateral entry” system of widening the pool of talent from which such appointments are made. Further, such lateral entry would benefit mid-career bright individuals already in the government system. Only strong political leadership — prime minister and chief ministers — can make this change happen. For better appointed officials, the government of India has started 360-degree evaluation and empanelment of two batches at a time to widen the talent pool for choice, but this is not true of state governments.

The how-to blueprint has been with us since 2008, in the Sixth Central Pay Commission report. In particular, its recommendations from Clause 6.1.8 to 6.1.14, regarding competition for all senior appointments, including lateral entry, should be mandatory action points (See

A chief minister or the prime minister could well implement these recommendations in the next 12 months. This would deliver better citizen outcomes, helping her or his re-election as well.

Expanding the talent pool to choose from would be critical. Thus, every appointed official’s post above that of the additional district magistrate or deputy municipal commissioner could be opened to competition from all government employees of which ever department or service, of whatever level of seniority. In addition, all such competitively appointed officials should be compensated at market rates during such tenures, with their current existing fixed government salary and a high variable component linked to achieving pre-decided outcomes. Thus, irrespective of service, cadre or seniority, a 36- or 49-year-old, who is good at policing and effective law and order, could vie for the post of Delhi police commissioner. Another one, who is good at project management and logistics, could have a shot at the posts of Mumbai Port Trust vice-chairman or the CEO of Amaravati Capital Region Development Authority. A third one could utilise her finance knowledge as Bengaluru income tax commissioner or her engineering skills as energy secretary, Assam, or a Railway Board member. Given the increasing importance of cities, how about appointing a management expert to lead Varanasi, Madurai or the Gurugram municipal corporation?

Illustration: Binay Sinha
This will motivate the cohort of mid-career bright government officials in the 30-45 age group, who are currently held back by the “seniority” system in appointments. Such candidates are well-versed in governmental processes and have the informal networks needed to achieve outcomes. A pure-play private candidate would lack the latter, even if she rapidly ascends the learning curve on processes. Hence, lateral entry is the best thing that could happen for bright mid-career government officials. Such winners would have a long tenure of five-plus years to implement their plans. 

Similarly, government of India roles requiring technical expertise would draw applications from those with long experience in that domain, rather than inducting officials without such technical expertise, who are ill-suited for such roles.

Of course, such a development would see a bitter pushback from the senior-most group of officials in each of our fiercely protected silos of services. All of them have gone through the grind — so many years of waiting to attain the right seniority to take a shot at these top jobs. Over half of them are truly outstanding and would win all such open competitions. The remaining, alas, have to be found parking slots as jobs in the current system, rather than the other way around. It’s almost like hiding poor fielders on the cricket field. 

Such sloppy fielders could easily be pensioned off after the age of 50, as per existing government regulations, so that they can make greater contributions to nation-building in roles outside the government. 

Some would cavil at such proposals, saying elected leaders would most likely pick their favourites. The Sixth Central Pay Commission recommendations do suggest a robust selection process. However, picking favourites out of small talent pools is already happening at most levels of the government, especially in states and cities. Moving to outcome-based senior appointments and jettisoning the baggage of “which batch” and “which service” would be good for India. Had we accepted the 2008 recommendation of the Sixth Central Pay Commission, government outcomes would certainly have changed over the last decade.

This is exactly what happened in countries such as Canada, Australia and even the UK, where we derive our administrative systems from. The United States changes its entire group of senior appointed officials every four or eight years with every president; its development over the last century shows the outcome focus created thereby. New public management entails top management of departments moving to outcome-focused contracts. A visiting Australian treasury veteran confided that when he joined the government, it was unthinkable that some day, their treasury head would be on contract. We already follow that system for the Reserve Bank of India. Could we dream of that happy day for all leadership positions in our governments? Further, when the prime minister says that our dreams to see a developed India would be fulfilled in our lifetime, wouldn’t such a radical change help achieve that? 

infrastructure, finance, cities and public policy, with a career evenly divided between the IAS and the private sector. Twitter @shypk

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