India expands external hires into senior jobs

By on 04/08/2021 | Updated on 04/08/2021
Close examination: sidestepping India’s traditional exam-based route into civil service leadership, the government is recruiting a small number of officials directly from business Credit: rnc form PxHere

India’s government is chipping away at the country’s rigid civil service hierarchy, with a new scheme for hiring external experts directly into senior roles normally preserved for the elite cadre of career Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officials.

The ‘lateral entry’ scheme, designed to pull in experienced professionals from the private sector, is set to recruit 30-40 new officers into ministries covering fields such as agriculture, civil aviation and commerce. Most of the new candidates will serve as directors for periods of three to five years.

While the new hires will be on a small scale, they represent a significant challenge to India’s traditional approach to recruiting civil service leaders. The country’s IAS entry scheme is among the most competitive civil service examinations in the world, with around a million candidates annually for fewer than 200 places. After intensive training, IAS staff undertake probationary periods as sub-divisional and district magistrates before joining the leadership of state or central government departments.

Seeking capacity and expertise

Speaking to Global Government Forum, an insider with knowledge of the programme explained that one of its goals is to plug recruitment gaps: IAS members may serve state administrations as well as central government, and national departments have been struggling to fill key roles.

“Bureaucrats serving in states do not wish to come to Delhi to serve in central ministries. They enjoy serving in the states as, due to India’s still largely feudal countryside and semi-urban areas, they can lord it over there,” said the source. 

The scheme is also designed to pull more expert knowledge into departments – but when a 2019 version of the programme hired people with direct connections into the sectors they were overseeing, concerns were raised over conflicts of interest. “Someone with connections to the civil aviation industry was hired in the concerned ministry,” the source pointed out, while ‘Right to Information’ data accessed by India Today magazine showed a candidate with experience with a shipping firm being hired in the shipping ministry. While these individuals’ experience in their policy fields has obvious benefits, their appointments sit awkwardly with an Indian civil service culture where the ‘generalist’ still rules and private businesses are kept at arm’s length.

Given this long-established culture, it is unsurprising that the earlier set of external appointees often struggled to find their way within government. In that June 2019 round, the government sought to appoint 10 professionals from the private sector at the rank of joint-secretaries – much higher up the tree than the director roles offered in today’s programme. According to a Right to Information request filed by India Today magazine, not every post was filled; seven of those appointed remain in service.   

Caste aside

Since the new jobs were advertised in February, the government has come under fire for sidestepping its obligations under the quotas scheme – which requires a proportion of jobs to be set aside for lower-caste applicants. The government has responded that these posts are being advertised and filled on an individual basis, suggesting that quotas apply only when positions are filled in batches of at least three. GGF’s source explains that the government wishes to keep its freedom to hire in exactly the people it wants, following the American model of headhunting those with the specific expertise and experience required. The appointments process is currently ongoing.

This new initiative will barely scratch the surface of Delhi’s senior-level vacancies. “The government has hired just nine officers as joint secretaries and intends to appoint 30 more as directors and joint secretaries as of now. However, there is a shortage of 22.48% or 1,510 officers for the IAS cadre, according to official data. The IAS and the Indian Police Service (IPS) have a combined shortage of 2,418 officers,” reports news website Mint.

Nonetheless, the scheme is important in signalling the government’s direction of travel on recruitment into civil service leadership roles. IAS members and private sector leaders will be watching the programme’s development, curious to see the fate of these private sector recruits injected into India’s very traditionally-run civil service.

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

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