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Good idea, big risks

The government can certainly do with some expertise when it comes to the bureaucracy but there are issues of conflict of interest

The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) put out an advertisement on Sunday inviting applications for 10 senior-level positions in various departments. The plan is to hire “outstanding individuals” as Joint Secretaries based on their subject expertise. The notification says candidates can be “Individuals working at comparable levels in Private Sector Companies, Consultancy Organisations, International/Multinational Organisations with a minimum of 15 years’ experience.” Basically, this is a way for people who have worked in the private sector to join the government without giving the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams.

Right off the bat, this seems like a fantastic move! Finally, we are about to see some semblance of reform in our archaic babudom. But, as a lot of government policies go: on the surface, it seems like a brilliant noble idea which if implemented badly, is going to be devastating.

Bureaucrats are the ones who run the government in the long term, while politicians come and go in short bursts. For all practical purposes, they are the government. But it is well understood that this bunch is extremely resistant to change. They’re not going to be happy with this reform.

Having said that, this is not the first time lateral hiring is being done. The UPA government assigned Nandan Nilekani as the head of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in a similar fashion. Even the Modi Government has hired Vaidya Rajesh Kotecha, an ayurvedic doctor and the former vice-chancellor of Gujarat Ayurveda University, as a special secretary in the Ministry of AYUSH.

In the first instance, Nilekani was hired because Aadhaar was his brainchild and he had the required domain expertise to see it through. The UPA government started the Aadhaar project without any legislative backing, with Nilekani at its helm, and continued implementing it piece by piece despite objections from the Opposition. After the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, the earlier objections vanished, the Aadhaar Bill was cleared as a Money Bill and the programme is being aggressively implemented across the board.

The programme itself now is exhibiting teething problems where there are data leakages and illegal access to the database being sold for a price. Simultaneously, the so-called ‘architects’ of Aadhaar who were earlier working with UIDAI as ‘volunteers’ have exited and started their own businesses, which use Aadhaar as a primary component. Basically, domain expertise was used to create a nice little government programme full of holes that has now become a nice little milkable cash cow.

In the second instance, Vaidya Rajesh Kotecha seems to be a known Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-man. He first met Modi in 1988 when he was the BJP General Secretary and came to inaugurate his clinic. Kotecha regards RSS ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh as his mentor and he’s a trustee in the Vijnana Bharati, an RSS outfit. Given his background and a clearly good relationship with our current Prime Minister, appointing him as a secretary in a Ministry is troubling.

You might say that in both these cases the people appointed seem to have domain expertise in specific areas that made them the best choice for the job. Sure, but there is also a big question about ‘equal opportunity’ that needs to be addressed here.
Article 16 of the Constitution of India says:

When a specific person is being chosen, especially a known person, to do a specific Government job which is paid for by the taxpayer, there is no possibility of “equality of opportunity” existing here.

So the one big and legitimate worry being expressed about lateral hiring is this: That the government might conveniently appoint ideologically-driven people they know in positions of power. There is also a fear that corporate entities might influence the government to appoint their own people inside ministries that concern their businesses. With one of their own sitting tight within the Ministry, private corporations will have an undue advantage in the market.

Now that we have the legit fears out of the way, let’s look at this move purely from a domain expertise angle.
Bureaucrats, through the ages, have never been allowed to gain expertise in a specific area and build their careers. Once they clear the UPSC exams and become IAS officers, they are made to switch from one department to the other based on orders of ministers. An officer building Swachch Bharat Toilets might end up building low-income housing after six months. And then he/she might be growing orchids in Sikkim six months after that. There is no real logic applied when assigning jobs to bureaucrats. Oh and no heed is paid to their educational qualifications before they gave the UPSC exams too.

In a bizarre situation like this, only seniority of the officer and closeness to particular political leaders is considered before transferring them from one department to another, depending on the situation. Bureaucrats aren’t able to gain expertise even if they want to. The lateral entry system is especially being put in place to deal with this problem.

The logic seems to be that our bureaucratic structure is broken and ineffective, so we need domain experts with specific expertise to execute specific tasks. The advertisement put out by DoPT asks for a minimum of 15 years experience and 40 years of age. The idea might also be to introduce a bit of competition within the ministries so that the existing Bureaucrats get busy trying to prove their worth over the new entrants.

Bureaucrats can’t be fired for doing a bad job. They are protected by the Article 311 of the Constitution of India, primarily so that political leaders can’t pressure them by threatening to fire them willy-nilly. But it also means that bureaucrats don’t get punished for doing a bad job. They’ll be transferred to a godforsaken location, hoping they would stay there and not cause trouble. That will not be the situation in the case of these lateral entry candidates.

These 10 new candidates have a limited three-year contract, with a possibility of a five-year extension based on their performance. The contract can be terminated by either parties with a notice of three months. That’s a total win, I say. Even if these candidates are driven by specific ideologies, doing a godawful job will have consequences.

Reform is a tricky thing to pull off when the bureaucracy is concerned. We are still, to a large extent, following a system designed by the British to rule over a colonised India. After the British up and left, they left this strange system of governance behind that we continue to follow 70 years later with limited changes. Perhaps, it’s time to evolve.

There is bound to be resistance when it comes to directly involving the private sector in government decision-making, but when there is a severe lack of talent and expertise that results in creation and implementation of crappy policies, the current government seems to have no option but to look at the private sector for help.

Whether it’s effective or not is yet to be seen. We can only hope that at least one of these 10 folks don’t end up creating the next Aadhaar equivalent of a “good intention, bad implementation” policy.

 

This article was first published in Newslaundry