Civil Services reforms: The need for lateral entry

Good governance is basic to all reforms and changes in society. Given the significance of the bureaucracy in India’s development, some of the major changes need to be incorporated in order to improve the bureaucracy’s efficiency and performance.

In news:

  • The PMO has instructed the department of personnel and training to prepare a proposal for middle-rung lateral entry in ministries dealing with the economy and infrastructure.

  • In 2005, the second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) recommended an institutionalized, transparent process for lateral entry at both the Central and state levels.


  • Stagnation in bureaucracy means the civil services as they exist today—most crucially, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS)—are unsuited to the country’s political economy in many ways.

  • Many young IAS officers often fall prey to the incompetency of the framework. Once inducted, postings and training seem to turn them into generalists rather than specialists. The training does not appear to focus on domain expertise and the knowledge required by jobs in today’s context.

  • However, political interference poses a constant threat to bureaucratic functioning. Historical data suggests there is a 53% chance that an IAS officer is transferred in any given year. As a result, political loyalty rather than professional qualifications often represents an alternative path to success.

  • Bureaucracy in India is governed by outmoded personnel procedures.

Changed scenario:

  • A newly independent India had pressing concerns about the need for socioeconomic development, the demands of Central planning and the imperative of holding together a new nation subject to internal political pressures.

  • The Constituent Assembly debates make it clear that the civil services were seen as a tool—by Vallabhbhai Patel, for instance—for achieving these objectives. Their creation and functioning thus gave rise to a tribe of generalist administrators whose economic effectiveness was sometimes subordinate to other concerns.

  • Seven decades later, those dynamics have changed. Some concerns, such as the need for having bureaucrats act as binding agents, no longer exist. Others, such as socioeconomic development, have transmuted to the point where the state’s methods of addressing them are coming in for a rethink.

  • And new concerns have arisen, such as the shift from the uniformity of centrally planned economic policy to the diverse demands of competitive federalism. The importance of economic effectiveness has risen concurrently.

Need for lateral entry:

  • In a 21st century economy, a quarter century after liberalization, that means the need for specialized skills and knowledge to inform policy-making and administration is more important than ever.

  • The first ARC had pointed out the need for specialization as far back as in 1965.

  • The Surinder Nath Committee and the Hota Committee followed suit in 2003 and 2004, respectively, as did the second ARC.

  • While there is a higher chance of junior officers who have acquired specialized knowledge and skills gaining much-prized Central government postings, there is no correlation between the postings and their area of specialization. That correlation comes into existence only at a late-career stage. Political interference and the use of transfers as carrot and stick further complicate the picture, often making it difficult for bureaucrats to stay in a posting long enough to gain relevant expertise. Thus the need for lateral entry.

  • Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, the UK, the Netherlands and the US identify specific senior positions that are open to appointments from a wider pool of civil servants as well as private-sector executives with relevant domain experience. Lateral entrants bring their own work culture, and this enables renewal and adaptation in government organisations.

  • Lateral entrants could also induce competition within the system. When civil servants are made to compete with outside talent, the lethargic attitude will diminish. So the prospects of lateral entry will always propel overall efficiency.

  • Civil servants should also be encouraged to move out and work for different sectors on a short-term basis to enrich their knowledge and enhance their motivation and efficiency. Therefore, lateral exit is as important as lateral entry.

Benefits of lateral entry:

  • It is both a workaround for the civil services’ structural failings and an antidote to the complacency that can set in a career-based service.

  • The second ARC report points out that it is both possible and desirable to incorporate elements of a position-based system where lateral entry and specialization are common.

Other areas of reform:

  • The advent of big data provides a natural opportunity to use metrics on officers’ performance in the field to inform promotion and retention decisions. Seniority, after all, is a blunt instrument for deciding who gets promoted and who does not.

  • The government should consider the proposal that officers deemed unfit for further service at specified career benchmarks be compulsorily retired through a transparent, uniform system of performance review.

  • Third, the government might contemplate allowing IAS officers to work more closely with their home states. Although India’s founders chafed at the prospect that officers be too closely linked with their state of origin for fear of elite capture, this issue could be revisited for further consideration.

  • Finally, it is imperative that the Central and state governments institute safeguards to protect against arbitrary, politically motivated transfers and postings of civil servants. Despite judicial prodding, most states have stalled on such moves.


  • India’s civil services need reform. There is little argument about this. Internal reforms—such as insulation from political pressure and career paths linked to specialization—and external reforms such as lateral entry are complementary, addressing the same deficiencies from different angles. In order to bring in the reforms, there are some supporting conditions that are necessary: First, political commitment for the reforms is essential. Second, the involvement of IAS officers in the change process from the very beginning can accelerate the process.


Leave a Reply