Will bureaucracy play spoilsport in ‘lateral hiring’ by Government?

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Senior corporate leaders welcome this fresh move by the government, but they also have their share of apprehension. HRKatha reports. 

Joint Secretaries hold a very important position in the government functionary and lead policymaking as well as the implementation of various programmes and schemes of the Department. They report to the Additional Secretary or the Secretary of the Ministry.

Earlier, the only way to get to this post was through the civil services examination conducted by the UPSC and that too after many years of service. Normally, a person who clears the civil services examination starts as an ‘Assistant Secretary’ or ‘Under Secretary’, if he or she gets a central positing.

Now the government has decided to open the post to private sector employees, with relevant experience and age.

A total of 10 posts at the level of joint secretary are initially on offer. The period of contract will be three years from the date of joining and can be extended up to five years depending upon performance.

I totally support GoI decision to allow lateral entry of professionals at the joint secretary-level. It’ll make the services more competitive and force the IAS to specialise. New ideas will come in. And the fun part is that those who couldn’t enter the IAS when they were young, find a crack in the wall!

The idea of lateral hiring was first recommended by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs In May 2016. The idea was to expand the pool of applicants for the posts of ambassadors and high commissioners to beyond officers of the Indian Foreign Service and invite ‘eminent persons who have excelled in the field of community affairs, diaspora issues, foreign policy, area studies, literature and journalism.’

Earlier, NITI Aayog had also recommended lateral entry of professionals as joint secretaries to tackle the shortage of officers.

Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer of Niti Aayog, also tweeted after the announcement “Niti’s experience with lateral entry has been extremely good. They bring in a vast number of fresh and vibrant ideas. This move in Govt was long overdue and I welcome it. Will catalyse UPSC entrants to specialise. Govt must also allow deputation of its officers to private sector as well,”

Many IAS officers have this apprehension that the government machinery functions in a very different way from how a corporate functions. They feel that a professional who enters the system through lateral hiring will take at least a few years just to understand the system and he or she will be totally indecisive in taking things forward. Clearly shows, how bureaucracy has seeped into our system.

In 2015, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal recommended replacing bureaucrats with professionals and sector experts to infuse fresh energy and ideas in governance.

Overall, people have welcomed this new move.

Shah Faesal, a 2009-batch IAS officer, wrote in a tweet: “I totally support GoI decision to allow lateral entry of professionals at the joint secretary-level. It’ll make the services more competitive and force the IAS to specialise. New ideas will come in. And the fun part is that those who couldn’t enter the IAS when they were young, find a crack in the wall!”

Adil Malia

Merely infusing lateral talent would not suffice. If the entire culture and talent eco-system are not overhauled, the government will not be able to retain that talent. In fact, if not inducted and enculturised well, there could be an outright rejection of that lateral talent. Attrition then may become their next challenge on hand.

“If talent acquisition is a key element of this programme and upgrading the talent quotient is a prescription for infusing efficiency into our flagerrating public enterprises, then the opening up of government enterprises to lateral infusion of talent is a fully desirable move,” says a senior corporate leader.

Another senior corporate leader says, “It will add external experiences and new flavourings to the essence of the enterprise. In fact it is rather late and talent double-dozing may actually be required.”

While both bureaucrats and corporates seem to be excited about this change, there is also apprehension on how successful this model can be.

Many IAS officers have this apprehension that the government machinery functions in a very different way from how a corporate functions. They feel that a professional who enters the system through lateral hiring will take at least a few years just to understand the system and he or she will be totally indecisive in taking things forward. Clearly shows, how bureaucracy has seeped into our system.

Most senior industry professionals have appreciated this move but they have their share of apprehensions as well.

Rajesh Padmanabhan

Though, it is a very bold and a daring step by the government, this new thinking needs to be backed with a strong change management programme run by the PMO.

Adil Malia, CEO, The Firm, who has been the head of human resources with several multinational and Indian companies, says, “Merely infusing lateral talent would not suffice. If the entire culture and talent eco-system are not overhauled, the government will not be able to retain that talent. In fact, if not inducted and enculturised well, there could be an outright rejection of that lateral talent. Attrition then may become their next challenge on hand.”

Malia suggests that there is a need for a change of talent mind-set at the board levels and calls for infusion of professional talent managers in the system to take this positive change to its logical value creating outcome.

Even Rajesh Padmanabhan, another senior HR leader, and now director & group CHRO – Welspun Group, concurs with Malia.

He says, “Though, it is a very bold and a daring step by the government, this new thinking needs to be backed with a strong change management programme run by the PMO.”

He fears that this move will be challenged by bureaucracy and this can get into a limbo.

Padmanabhan suggests the professionals hired through lateral hiring need to have the freedom to operate and at the same time, the appointments will have to be hugely merit based, with credibility established across.

“If the bureaucratic web can be encouraged to support this bunch of experts joining in, this will be great,” he quips.

However, lateral hiring is not a fresh concept. The corporate world has gained the most through lateral hiring and so as many other government bodies.

The appointment of Professor Achin Vinayak by University of Delhi is an example of lateral hiring done right. Vinayak, a former journalist, was appointed as the professor of political science and later promoted to head the department. He was appointed under the “alternative qualifications” as his credentials — he has an undergraduate degree in science — and domain knowledge did not require him to pass an exam to be allowed an entry into a prestigious institute.

However Vinayak’s appointment was also challenged at the Delhi High Court, and the court had observed: “Under the alternative qualifications category, a candidate for the post of a professor is not judged by his academic qualification but in terms of his achievement and contribution in the relevant subject. Accordingly, educational qualification loses its significance in the backdrop of accomplishments in their field of specialisation.”

There are many success stories from the corporate world as well.

Coca-Cola’s erstwhile India CEO – Alex von Bahr was a very successful KRAFT professional who was laterally inducted along with 6 other CEO level professionals from other companies into the Coca-Cola system. This intervention in the leadership journey, worked rather well and paid dividends.

“When talent is infused only at lowest levels by companies, and if lateral talent is not infused, the culture of that enterprise tends to become infused and inbred with no space to accommodate new and desirable dimensions to the culture,” says Malia.

“If purpose is to bring change and transform, rightly infusion of talent at lateral levels is the leadership intervention,” he concludes.

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