Max Weber credited with the birth of sociology, the science of social studies, said that the ‘ideal bureaucracy’ consisted of a system that was efficient, worked fast but yet remained precise, wasn’t ambiguous, had knowledge of the files it held, continually discreet, has strict subordination, reduction of friction whilst maintaining the lowest possible material and production costs. While Weber’s statement is itself ambitious (and highly unlikely that a bureaucracy containing all those characteristics could exist in either the US or UK political systems), if a bureaucracy did exist with those characteristics, it would be incredibly effective and useful to the administration of the time.

In the US there has always been a long-held view of negativity against civil servants and, to that end, the term “bureaucrat” has become one of insult. The same is true of the UK, where the civil service and civil servants have been synonymous with delays, paperwork and interference. But the bureaucracy in India is not only powerful but also a coveted job for millions.

All of us know for a fact that the state/government has a minimalist role to play in the US due to the capitalist model of its governance. It is the private sector that leads the economy while the state is relegated to the background, performing mostly regulatory functions. In this regard, the private sector holds both the moolah and the prestige. The context totally changes when we speak of India. The Indian bureaucracy has a more significant role. It is the main instrument of policy implementation as well as of policy formulation. As India marches on its path of development and fulfils its tryst with destiny, the role of the state and bureaucracy should continue to decline and get closer to that of developed nations. The changes can already be seen in our switch from a model of Nehruvian socialism to the PV Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh model to Narendra Modi’s mantra of “minimum government, maximum governance”.

The Modi government has just taken its most revolutionary step to reform bureaucracy—the lateral entry scheme. The Centre has opened the highest echelons of the bureaucracy to skilled individuals from the private sector and academia, inviting applications from 10 candidates at the level of joint secretary across various departments. Joint secretaries play a crucial role in formulating and implementing policy.

Bypassing the UPSC exam, ten ‘outstanding’ individuals will be selected as joint secretaries across the following departments — Revenue, Financial Services, Economic Affairs, Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers’ Welfare, Road Transport & Highways, Shipping, Environment, New & Renewable Energy, Civil Aviation and Commerce. Soon after assuming office, Prime Minister Modi had held a meeting with top civil servants at the Centre seeking lateral entry for private sector professionals and academics at the joint secretary level. However, the idea was dropped under a severe pushback from the IAS establishment.

The lack of specialisation across the top tier of Indian bureaucracy is a concern that has remained unaddressed until now. IAS officers get recruited at a very early age via the UPSC exams. It is difficult to gauge their administrative judgement and capabilities then. Some may pass with flying colours while others don’t make the cut even later on in their careers. Allowing for lateral entry of seasoned professionals and experts into the service makes up for this deficiency.

Career promotions in the IAS move along seamlessly with few impediments along the way. Attempts to introduce ‘meritocracy’ hasn’t quite worked out. Bringing in experts from the professional sphere is expected to shake the IAS out of their comfort zone.

This isn’t the first time that the government brought in professionals from the private sector or academia into the top tier of government, though. Take a look at the Finance Ministry, Reserve Bank of India and even the current NITI Aayog, which have hired the likes of Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian and Arvind Panagariya to name a few.

The IAS was designed for a time when the state was all-powerful. That reality somewhat changed with the liberalisation of 1991, where the state was compelled to cede more space to markets. Therefore, it becomes more critical for the government to ascertain the impact its policy decisions have on various stakeholders such as the private sector, non-profits, and general public — those who have experienced government from the outside.

However, sceptics and advocates of the status quo would argue that encouraging lateral entry to such senior positions in the administration on a contract basis may erode the basic foundational values of ethics, integrity and accountability of the civil services, which is perceived to be one of the finest inheritances of the British legacy by India. They would further say the scheme is not constitutionally feasible as, under Articles 311 and 312 of the Constitution, officers of the All India Services (AIS) are appointed by the President on recommendation of the UPSC, and that any new scheme dealing with the AIS will have to be ratified by a 2/3 majority of the Rajya Sabha and then by the Lok Sabha.

If this proposal by the Modi government is not privatisation, it is certainly an attempt in corporatising bureaucracy to commercialise policymaking. It will be resisted tooth and nail by the current ‘bosses’ in the game. Also, how can we be assured that people from the Sangh Parivar are not put into these important positions, the opposition might ask.

While there have been many lateral entrants into the government who have made a distinctive contribution — Manmohan Singh, Vijay Kelkar, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Jairam Ramesh and several others — one of the first principles of good administration or management, which many of us learnt during our formative years, was the importance of defining problems with clarity and precision before attempting to find solutions. Precepts and ideas based on practices followed by large corporations were inducted into the mainstream public administration and governance discourse.

The new knowledge economy is increasingly moving into a realm which is multi- and inter-disciplinary, where the convergence of skills is the most sought after. Second, both in government and public policy circles and in corporate-business strategy circles, sectoral fragmentation and narrow specialisation have given way to a team-based, multi-sectoral approach to problems.

Reform is always a painful process that requires a larger adjustment. The government must first identify the positions and areas where they need specialists rather than generalists. While an invisible hand or laissez-faire of Adam Smith may have worked in classical economics to bring equilibrium by market forces and Ricardian ‘wine’ efficiency may have led to postulation of the free trade theory on comparative advantage, in reality, government’s interference has done wonders in saving the capitalist economy and high tariff walls have allowed developing the Japenese car industry. This is also true of our bureaucracy, which must be prepared for laissez-faire of private sector induction and the Ricardian efficiency of comparative advantage can be established through free trade with the private sector.

As Indian moves towards being the third largest economy in years to come, our bureaucracy will have to play a major role in regulatory functions and we will require team-based and multi-sectoral approach too. But for the time being, lateral entry seems to be a great idea which must be scrutinised in details. The lateral entry must be planned in a way that increases the efficiency and coordination among bureaucrats so that it enriches governance.