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Nine New Warriors: Game of Thrones, government style

Will the lateral recruits who have made the cut fit in? Or, will there be a conflict of interest?

It’s taken nearly six months for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to decide on the first set of lateral entrants to the post of Joint Secretary.

Although ten were to be taken in, only nine candidates out of the 6.077 who applied made the cut. But as the Department of Personnel and Training works on the nuances of their contract, civil servants are in a tizzy. How will a level playing field be created between those entrenched in the service and the lateral entrants? Will the terms of contract define a cooling off period for these new entrants to ensure there is no conflict of interest?

The ones who made it

All eyes will be on the selected candidates to see how they fit into the government way of working. Those selected are: Kakoli Ghosh for Agriculture, Co-operation and Farmers Welfare Ministry; Amber Dubey for Civil Aviation; Arun Goel for Commerce; Rajeev Saksena for Economic Affairs; Sujit Kumar Bajpayee for Environment, Forest and Climate Change; Saurabh Mishra for Financial Services; Dinesh Dayanand Jagdale for New and Renewable Energy; Suman Prasad Singh for Road Transport and Highways and Bhushan Kumar for the Shipping Ministry. No one was selected for the post for the Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance. According to the UPSC, the recruitment process for selection of candidate for the Department of Revenue became infructuous at the interview stage.

Although this is not the first time the government has inducted domain experts to meet the functional needs of an organisation — famous names include Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Bimal Jalan and Parameswaran Iyer— this particular experiment has set the cat among the pigeons.

A Joint Secretary is like a CEO

That’s because most lateral entries so far have been for heads in the government ministries or independent authorities. And those who have come at lower levels have mostly come in as consultants. This is for the first time they are coming as regular joint secretaries — the third highest non-political executive rank in the Government of India. A JS in corporate parlance is like a CEO, who is responsible for leading the development and execution of long-term strategies. As Anil Swarup, Former Secretary, HRD, says, “There are rules that define the role of a regular JS. It remains to be seen how roles will be defined for these individuals.”

Swarup also wonders about the motivation of those coming in. “Job security and responsibility are the two key factors for people to take government jobs. I do not know how it will work in this case.”

“Also, another big challenge will be maintaining confidentiality. If an individual knows that after three or five years he/she will have to look for another job, then will it not create conflict of interest if it is in the same field of business? For regular officers there is a one-year cooling off concept to avoid any conflict of interest, will a similar concept apply here,” asks Swarup.

A regular bureaucrat has to wait for a year after quitting the Civil Service or even after retirement to join the private sector to avoid conflict of interest. “The government may have to evolve a mechanism,” responds an official who has been closely involved with the entire exercise.

Ashok Jha, Former Secretary, Finance, feels the conflict of interest issue is a pertinent question. “The contract will have to contain a cooling off period, otherwise it will be a revolving door to greener pastures after the assignment in the government is over. It will also raise valid questions on confidentiality. This will have to be addressed by invoking the Officials Secrets Act,” he says. “Some countries like the UK have, to a large measure, addressed these issues satisfactorily. But then, the cultures are entirely different as are the legal ramifications,” adds Jha.

However, Prabir Jha, Founder & CEO at Prabir Jha People Advisory, who has worked both in the public and private sector, says, “Whether it is a direct recruit or those coming through lateral entry, the risks and liabilities remain the same. For example, a recruit has to affirm allegiance to the Constitution of India or be bound by various statutory norms. Experience has it that no defaults have happened as yet.”

“What is more crucial is whether the new entrants will come as a regular JS in the respective ministry or are designated against JS equivalent posts. That can be a big difference,” he points out.

For example, if it is a posting at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in the Ministry, then the role is that of a regulator and designate position is that of a Joint Secretary, thus there is less involvement in policy decision making. “If it is equivalent post, then I would say it is a smart and useful addition of expertise but not much would have really changed. Even otherwise, the numbers are more symbolic in the bureaucratic reality for now,” he says.

Besides, it remains to be seen how much freedom of operation and space they will have, sums up Jha.