You are on page 1of 3

8/28/2017 The perennial generalist vs specialist debate -Governance Now

(http://www.governancenow.com/)

The perennial generalist vs specialist debate


Half-baked impractical ideas such as lateral entry should not be encouraged. The room for abuse is enormous

TSR Subramanian (/users/subramanian) | June 26, 2015

The specialist vs. generalist debate in Indias civil services resurfaces periodically. One has seen a chief of the electricity board, an excellent engineer
who managed his power plants and transmission systems extremely well, totally clueless in matters relating to power policy. One has also seen a
first-rate irrigation chief engineer taking over as secretary of the irrigation department and floundering from day one on administrative issues. On
the other hand, there have been many scientists, long abdicating their scientific work, turn into fine administrators and policymakers. It is not
uncommon to find IAS secretaries, with excellent reputation, often unable to find their feet in alien departments. There is no hard and fast rule in
such matters; the suitability and background of each officer for a post is more relevant than his label.
11
Shares

http://www.governancenow.com/views/columns/the-perennial-generalist-vs-specialist-debate 1/6
8/28/2017 The perennial generalist vs specialist debate -Governance Now

Having said that, it has often been found suboptimal to have a specialist to head a department say the ministry of energy or ministry of power. By
definition, all specialists focus on their own specific fields, and each technical field has a hundred branches. An expert on electrical transmission may
not have better advisory capability in the field of solar or hydrogen energy than a non-engineer with an open mind; in most fields rapid development
has taken place in the past decades our expert has learnt his specialty years back, and may be out of date even in his own specialisation. The
generalist is not afraid of asking questions, consults many experts before a position is taken more often than not the specialist tends to take the
view that he knows all in his field, and often shuns other opinion.

The author of this piece had occasion recently to prepare a study for the government on two separate fields environment, and post office reforms.
In the area broadly referred to as environment and climate change, it was an eye-opener to find at least a hundred separate fields of specialisation;
often experts and agencies working in one may not be aware even of the existence of many others. Thus, forestry itself has any number of branches
if you add technical, commercial and social forestry issues, the fields of specialisation get multiplied. The arena of pollution air and water itself
accommodates hundreds of expert fields. The committee that did the study would not have really been able to take a holistic view by talking just to
one expert, however renowned they met over a hundred, to get the picture. Likewise, the issue of postal reform covered a variety of fields telecom
spectrum, optical fibre connectivity, Unique Identity issues, insurance for life / accident / crops, logistics for e-commerce, to mention a few;
doubtless, each of these would open up into many more specialised fields of expertise. Thus only an officer with intimate knowledge of the system,
with decades of background and experience (needless to say with some imagination, insight and innovation), could bring together different experts
to tackle each element of a new strategy. These illustrate the fallacy of repeatedly referring to need to replace generalists with specialists.

The management of public affairs, as practised in India, is a highly specialised field; practitioners have to learn this profession, by working in the
field the university or training institutions will not prepare a person to deal with politicians, crooks, public grievances, riots, floods, policy-making
in hundred fields, dealing with the police and the judiciary none of these is taught in engineering schools or in MBA courses. Robust
commonsense, coupled with a sense of dedication, pride, professionalism, and experience from years of working as a field officer and in the
secretariat are the key requirements to make an administrator.

Another metaphor may be drawn to make comparison should a senior citizen, with many ailments not unusual for his age, have only one expert
doctor as his consultant, or should he rely on a generalist doctor? This is not a hypothetical question. A person with high BP and diabetes (standard
for most Indians), a weak spine (not unusual for government servants, particularly for those who have one), and poor lung capacity (normal for
Delhi citizens, indeed of any city in India) should he take advice directly from six different experts, without the assistance of a generalist all-round
doctor, to interpret, moderate and balance the frequently conflicting expert advice? This is the role that the professional generalist, with two to
three decades of experience is able to play in the system.

The question then may be asked that when the minister himself is a generalist, why one needs a secretary who is also a generalist. The minister is an
expert in politics, manoeuvring public opinion, making wild promises, generally shrewd but weak in comprehension of complex issues; without
being overly uncharitable, his main management task is to ensure that the ruling partys political image remains intact; that in most cases, the
special interest groups (aka mafias) that he is beholden to is benefitted; and that everything he does will ensure a good chance of his re-election. Do
not be fooled by appellations our ministers, especially in the states, do not have the same IQ or probity or experience quotient displayed by their
counterparts in developed countries; the minister is just not cut out to be an administrator.

The UPSC is a key institution, one of the few which has maintained pristine standards; none has seriously questioned its process of selecting the best
candidates for the civil services. The IAS is selected through a competitive examination not on pass or fail basis; the system is designed to test
overall comprehension, analytical ability, and optimal approach to situations, rather than specialisation; it would not make a difference whether a
generalist or a professional is inducted into the service.

The second administrative reforms commission had recommended lateral recruitment at the additional secretary and secretary levels. Many, at first
sight, may see this as logical. The fact is that even now, at the government of India level, the secretary-level posts are evenly divided among all-India
service officers, and experts in their own fields most of them spending their career in government, rising to the top. Having worked in the system
at the secretariat, the expert may not have field experience (so essential to any policymaker or administrator whose recommendations / decisions
would have impact on the citizen); however, he has understood the governmental system, which itself is highly specialised. Thus an Abdul Kalam or
a Kasturirangan, who contributed during their time to governance, were both products of the system; the likes of Montek Singh Ahluwalia also were
experts in their own field, but they thrived within the environment of the governmental milieu. It is a moot question whether an outside expert
brought in, so to speak cold-turkey, to a line-department like telecom or agriculture or commerce would be able to hit the deck running he would
take at least a couple of years to understand the way decisions are examined and taken within the system, the operation of various institutional
factors such as party politics, the judicial system, the parliament, the CAG and other statutory and constitutional agencies, not to speak of the
impact of media or the NGOs or the social media on decision making. This is not to belittle or downplay the role of experts they are of vital
importance to provide high quality technical inputs, and raise the quality of approach to complex issues. Do not downgrade them by asking them to
11
be pen-pushing babus.
Shares

http://www.governancenow.com/views/columns/the-perennial-generalist-vs-specialist-debate 2/6
8/28/2017 The perennial generalist vs specialist debate -Governance Now

Do not demean our talented experts to waste their time dealing with inconsequential parliamentary questions. Equally, do not demean the senior
professional civil servant, chosen from among the best talent available in India, with two-or-three-decades of relevant experience he is generally
irreplaceable.

One other significant point needs to be highlighted. India has borrowed its administrative structure from Whitehall not from the US, where each
minister is allowed to choose his own senior advisers, who leave their private jobs as experts to join the ministers team for a five-year stint; in the US
they are team members, and identify their personal interests solely with that of the minister. In India such a concept will have disastrous impact
will make a corrupt system infinitely worse, in most situations. In India the governance pattern is adversarial the secretarys role is to render
dispassionate non-partisan advice; he is also responsible, as a career functionary, for the propriety of the advice he tenders. Besides, Indian
administration does not have the checks and balances that US has, where most proposals are looked at through committees at different levels. Only a
person who does not understand the basics, as well as the complex nature of Indian administrative practice, would trust short-term advisers at the
highest levels, who will exercise authority without responsibility. Lateral entry will spell disaster, particularly in states where methods will be found
to induct persons with limited expertise but dubious integrity, to loot the system. Again, before lateral entry is considered, there needs to be a clear
understanding of what the current gaps are, and how if at all lateral entry will fill them.

The present system of postings and transfers is frequently irrational, especially in the states. However, it needs to be ensured that at the additional
secretary/ secretary level it will be unwise and counterproductive to post a career civil servant, who does not have previous experience in that broad
field. At the level of secretary, there is no time to learn the broad milieu and general features of that particular field, indeed its lingo; there is no
place for people with no previous exposure. Career planning for the services should ensure that the officer posted at the secretary level should have
done at least one assignment at deputy secretary / director / joint secretary levels, to give him a sense of familiarity, as also to ensure that he is fully
effective from day one.

No one questions the need for reform of the civil service, which ought to be a continuous process, as in every other sphere. Politicisation of the civil
services has taken roots. The level of corruption in many civil services has reached worrisome, if not alarming, levels though miniscule compared
to the political arena. The morale of the civil servants themselves is low, particularly in the states. Some, who have little understanding of Indian
governance, have even asked whether the time has come to abolish the all-India services.

Dont throw the baby with the bath water. What is needed is reform, not scrapping the system. Civil servants should be enabled to perform with
freedom, efficacy and accountability. For this, one should reach out to tackle the core problems, not just tinker with peripheral issues. The necessary
political will has to be summoned, if such a thing were possible, to tone up and cleanse the civil services.

The core problems afflicting the civil services stem from larger political causes, relating to unstable state governments, rampant corruption in the
states and operation of mafias, and an insecure political executive exploiting the public servant for narrow personal ends. Politics having become the
most lucrative business in the country, with few checks and controls, there is compulsion for the minister or political leader to tempt or coerce civil
servants to collude with him for mutual benefit. Frequent transfers, ministers hand-picking the officials to work with them and sidelining of efficient
but honest officers are common now, especially in the states. An array of weapons is used: arbitrary transfers, control over the annual character roll
entry, and unleashing of departmental inquiries to keep civil servants off balance and submissive, prodding them to collusion. These are the key
issues which need to be addressed, for a meaningful reform.

The main weaknesses in our governance structure do not emanate from the civil services. Currently, the real problems lie elsewhere. The political
scene is unprincipled, unscrupulous, and untrammelled there is no effective check against excesses and delinquency of the political executive.
Political reforms should be highest on the agenda. This is possible only if there is significant election reform. Judicial reform, about which much is
not yet talked about, also ranks in the forefront. One should avoid the temptation to look for easy solutions, barking up the wrong tree since the
civil servant is the easiest target to hit. Half-baked impractical ideas such as lateral entry should not be encouraged the room for abuse is
enormous.

Subramanian is a former cabinet secretary.

(The article appears in the June 16-30, 2015 issue)

Read Less (-)

Comments
11
Shares

http://www.governancenow.com/views/columns/the-perennial-generalist-vs-specialist-debate 3/6