The cornerstone of the public service is that it is based on meritocracy. Not only does it require that the agents chosen are competent in their work, but it also guarantees a fair, transparent and time-tested recruitment process. Any modification thereof must not compromise its standards of neutrality. Last month, the Civil Service Union Commission (UPSC) announcement that it had granted lateral entry to 31 candidates for senior and mid-level positions in Union ministries. However, this is not the first attempt to bring private sector âspecialistsâ into the bureaucracy. In 2019, nine candidates were inducted into Narendra Modi’s government.
While this is an important reform to bring experts into the civil service, it could disrupt the integrity of the system. India can learn from its northern neighbor, Pakistan, which had largely experienced the lateral entry of experts into its bureaucracy in 1973 and finally closed it in 1979, failing to achieve standards of neutrality.
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The Public Service Experience in Pakistan
The Side Entry System (LES) in Pakistan was institutionalized by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1973 based on the recommendation of the Khursheed Hasan Meer Committee. The introduction of side entrants was not new to the Pakistani bureaucracy, as the military regime of Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-68) also did. same but on an ad hoc basis. The motto of the overhaul reforms, including the side entry, was to tackle the centralization of power between a handful of officials named CSP (Civil Service of Pakistan), the descendant of the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In Pakistan, this challenge was part of the larger problem of the power imbalance between a well-established, centralized civil service and weak elected institutions. Bhutto, who represented the first democratic government elected since 1947, saw this as a task to be rectified immediately in order to implement his socialist policies. Bhutto was of the opinion that the ‘naukarshahi‘, by its snobbery and arrogant attitude, had lowered the quality of national life in Pakistan.
The LES were believed to be making structural changes in the civil service in order to correct the power imbalance within the Pakistani bureaucracy on the one hand and democratic institutions on the other. Bhutto also believed that the lateral entry of specialists would curb the dominance of generalists in the civil service. It was meant to provide the breadth of vision and understanding of the environment, in which policies are formulated and ultimately implemented.
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Ideals sacrificed to political interests
Despite the ideals envisioned, the implementation of the LES in 1973 could not turn them into reality. The impartiality and objectivity of the recruitment procedure, the basis of meritocracy, were not ensured in the selection of side candidates. In Pakistan, the Federal Civil Service Commission (FPSC) is the guarantor of fair recruitment of civil servants, but in LES, the task of recruiting lateral entrants has been assigned to the Ministry of Settlement Division under the government, resulting in direct government control over the selection procedure for lateral entrants. For this reason, the LES has been widely used for political purposes and has led to the politicization of the civil service. This has proven to be counterproductive and has done more harm than good to the system. The LES was widely criticized for leaving the system dysfunctional because the civil service, which was supposed to serve the citizens, served the interests of the politicians.
In addition, the LES was open not only to individuals from the private sector but also to public sector employees, including civil servants. And because of this, it was reduced to being an instrument for rewarding political loyalty among officials. For example, an officer who found limited chances of promotion in his parent setting could move on to the Secretariat group as a side-entry and could be promoted as high as his loyalty. This was known as the “horizontal movement”, in which officials moved from group to group to deepen their career prospects.
The hasty implementation of LES left the recruitment process indefinite, which also led to the selection of unsuitable and incompetent candidates. In many cases, there was only a weak correlation, albeit with some slippage, between the entrant’s old job and the new job. Researcher Charles H. Kennedy, in his book, Bureaucracy in Pakistan gives an example where an officer, possibly assigned to the post of Joint Secretary, Division of Religious Affairs, was a mathematician by profession and had to demonstrate expertise in the field. Even suitable positions for laterally selected candidates have not been identified.
Generalist officials in Pakistan were unhappy with this system. What prevailed was a hostile environment which had a negative impact on the whole bureaucracy. Bureaucrats viewed lateral entrants as an obstacle to their promotion, sent to spy on the civil service. This resulted in chaos and demoralization of the service and was eventually abandoned under the subsequent rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
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Side entry, once introduced, lives forever
The LES, introduced by Bhutto, provided an instrument in the hands of the political establishment. Due to the inherent advantages of government controlling the recruitments, appointments, dismissals, pensions, promotions and grievances of side entrants, this practice has never been able to be reversed in Pakistan’s political history. Zia, the head of the military regime, although removed from the LES, used it to institutionalize the enthronement of military officers into the civilian bureaucracy. Under his regime, 10 percent of vacancies in the federal bureaucracy were reserved for retired and serving military personnel, who were selected by a high-level selection committee headed by Zia himself and not by the FPSC. Likewise, Benazir Bhutto opened a job exchange in the prime minister’s own office under the name of âPlacement Officeâ to appoint his followers to various positions in the bureaucracy.
Over the years, the side entry system has continued to reappear in various forms, politicizing the administrative structure, compromising independence, and eroding the neutrality and competence of the bureaucracy. Now all governments welcome the opportunity to intervene in appointments, transfers and assignments in order to exercise favoritism and forge long-term alliances with bureaucrats.
Side entry of private sector specialists could benefit India in the long run, but in the absence of a rock-solid system, it is a tightrope walker. In India, the scarcity of senior IAS staff in policy making and the ever increasing complexity of the policy making process itself require the formal entry of professionals into the bureaucracy. However, the way it is implemented will make all the difference. In order not to become another Pakistan, India must make the side entry process legitimate and constitutional by going the way of Parliament and using Article 321 of our Constitution to create a strong framework. This will be beneficial in the next step, which is to expand the operation. To have a big impact, introductions must be numerically meaningful. In addition, parliamentary deliberation will open the system to public scrutiny, which will further strengthen confidence in the lateral entry procedure.
The author teaches political science at the University of Magadh, Bodh Gaya. She holds a doctorate in the Pakistani civil service with particular reference to the decentralization of power. Opinions are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)
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