India’s civil service think tank moves to open up top jobs

By on 21/11/2017 | Updated on 24/03/2022
The Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, photographed with IAS probationers in 2015 at Parliament Library, in New Delhi

The Indian government is attracting fire from many serving civil servants over its plans to allow departments to recruit people directly into senior posts from outside the civil service.

Traditionally, most top jobs in India’s civil service are reserved for members of the Indian Administrative Service: selected by examination after university, IAS officials follow a long-established fast-track leadership development programme into senior managerial and policy roles. But in July, India’s in-house policy think tank Niti Aayog proposed that specialist professionals should be recruited into the IAS in mid-to-late career, boosting the government’s technical skills and delivery expertise. In August, according to a report by the Press Trust of India, the idea won the support of Prime Minister Modi and the government confirmed that it was “considering” the idea.

Niti Aayog, Governance Now reported, suggested that it should pilot external recruitment into IAS positions – arguing that it would “bring top talent and energy into the government” and boost its stock of “specialised knowledge and skills”. The think tank has now submitted to government its request for permission to change its rules of recruitment.

Defending the monopoly

The proposals have gone down badly with serving and former civil servants, several of which have argued that external recruits will lack the required expertise in policy making and delivery. Avay Shukla, a former official who criticised the idea in a recent piece for New Indian Express, told Global Government Forum that “the IAS officer’s most critical role is to work as a coordinator of various government programmes, not as an expert for any one of them: for that, there are departmental officers to assist him.”

IAS officers, Shukla said, develop experience across many fields of government operations – building the skills and contacts to get departments working together: “Coordination poses the biggest problem for effective governance, because different departments tend to work in their own silos and, quite often, at cross purposes with each other,” he said. “Public administration is a domain in itself. A subject-matter expert is not trained to discharge this role.”

Tuktuk Ghosh, a former bureaucrat and a commentator on policy issues, told Global Government Forum that “there is no compelling reason to induct so-called experts from the private sector into the higher echelons of government.” Whilst the backers of external recruitment argue that IAS officers are often too young to have gathered the topical expertise required in top jobs, Ghosh pointed out that “many studies have shown that the entry-level age for IAS officers has been on the rise in the last couple of years”.

Bigger problems

In Ghosh’s view, “lateral entry is a lazy, easy, non-solution to the gargantuan problem of a legacy-riddled, oversized, barely-effective governance structure over which the IAS has been presiding over for several decades.” She added that the first task for India’s civil service leaders is to become free of political interference, arguing that external recruitment won’t help with this challenge.

In a bid to develop the specialist and technical skills demanded by the challenges facing administrations today, many countries have opened up senior jobs to external candidates: the UK, for example, has reformed recruitment processes, pay structures and professional groupings in order to hire experts in fields such as digital, commercial and finance. But Shukla believes that technical professionals should be brought in as consultants rather than managers, arguing that external recruitment is a blind alley and a distraction.

“There are no short cuts for reforming and improving the system,” he said. In his view, the solutions lie in improving civil service recruitment and promotion, training, performance management and accountability – and in safeguarding civil service objectivity through “doing away with assured time bound promotions, insulation from politics, discretion in giving post-retirement assignments, and a cooling-off period for a bureaucrat to join politics.”

“Lateral entry is just a smokescreen,” Shukla argued. But with the prime minister keen to broaden the mix of skills and backgrounds among civil service managers, it seems that the IAS’s grip on senior posts may soon be diluted.

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.

One Comment

  1. Bipin Patel says:

    Most successful Prime Minister of India Mr. Narendra Modi in Last 40 years of Political History of India and I am proud of His success and positive hard working last 3 years progress.

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