Sunday, October 01, 2006

An Alternative Philosophy to Governance

Sometime ago, the Election Commission was issuing Voter ID cards . The venue for residents of my area was a Corporation school nearby. After collecting the usual identification like the ration card, and my college identity (just in case), I stepped out of my house and heaved a sigh. Like the average citizen I like to minimize my interaction with the government as much as possible for it inevitably implies delays and brusque officials. I always try to wriggle out of any work involving the Sarkar, especially the municipality. In fact, for most houses in my street, one fellow collects the telephone bills, water bills etc and pays them in return for a small fee!

As I reached the venue and got into the queue for the ID card, it struck me that the process sounded impressive. There was a web cam kind of thing which took the photo. A printout was taken, laminated and finally a hologram was stuck. The average service time, once you got to the photo, worked out to be around ten to twelve minutes. It is creditworthy that such an important document can be issued to so many people in such a short period.

However, the line was long and as usual there were quite a few throwing a fuss about the inefficiency of the process. Bollocks. It is a general tendency to criticize the government and I felt the criticism unjustified in this context. Also, the official present in the spot handled all queries politely and assuaged ruffled feathers in a pleasant manner. This has to be praised as government officials are often coarse in their dealings with “aam junta“.

However, there is scope for some improvement. For instance, a token could have been issued for every visitor. Knowing the present token number, a visitor would have an approximate idea of how long it would take for his/her turn and therefore, he/she could go out and attend to some other work or just have tea nearby instead of waiting in the queue. Seats can be laid out for those who want to sit around. But these are small details. The earnestness and enthusiasm of those involved was appreciable considering that the conditions were quite inconvenient for them. They were mostly standing and the room in which the photos were taken was perennially congested. Also there was a single fan which was rotating so slowly that it didn’t have any effect whatsoever.

While I would rate the whole system as good, overall, it lacked that touch, the finish of professionalism. I think it is high time professionalism crept into governance. With India growing at the rate that it is, the issue of governance will assume a very important status. However, barring stray exceptions, the philosophy and attitude of the average civil servant is still unfortunate. There seems to be an attitude of mistrust and unfriendliness in any government office, as if, any gesture of friendliness would end up in the public taking undue advantage of them. I think this attitude is a remnant of the Raj mentality when the British trained the Civil Servants to look down upon the natives and treat them with a certain distance. Much power concentrated in so few viz. the IAS and the politicians. This results in the bottom rungs viz. the clerk classes constantly looking up to the superiors for signals. These people posses the amazing chameleon like ability to dance to the tune of their superiors. Such behavior is a survival tactic which arises from an insecurity and fear of the powerful. However insecurity doesn’t lead to confidence. In fact, by concentrating power in the hands of so few, the system ends up killing the entrepreneurial qualities of the people at the bottom.

Why should people at the bottom have entrepreneurial abilities? Well, often it is such people who know the ground realities better and can therefore come up with better plans to implement lofty ideas.

This train of argument leads one to the conclusion that the government too has to be run like a firm. Many firms give extraordinary powers to their lower managers in return for extraordinary expectations on performance.

But are we justified in comparing the government with any firm? If the government is run like a firm, if the profit motive comes even into the government, then who will be the neutral arbiter for the society? Agreed, a government cannot and should not be run with a profit motive like a modern firm. However, why should the notion of a firm imply only profit maximization?

My own model is that of a government which is run like a firm whose objective is maximizing customer satisfaction.

Let us analyze this statement.

Who is the customer?
The taxpayer is the customer for the government’s services. In a sense, any public servant’s salary comes from the taxpayer, so there is a moral obligation to serve the taxpayer well.

How can this be implemented?
Years of training and mistrust cannot be changed in one stroke. I imagine there must be too many vested interests, unions, politicians- the usual suspects, who will not allow sweeping changes to step in. However, inspiration can be obtained from the enlightened shop floor practices taught in any industrial engineering course. In any top quality factory, graphs showing product quality as a function of various parameters are displayed. The aim is that an interested worker can look at that and get a feeling of reassurance of the importance of his job or in some cases, take initiatives.

Similarly, let us consider a government office which gives some sort of clearance. In such an office a chart showing number of clearances per month can be displayed. A small thing like this can make a difference to the everyday functioning of the employees. Seeing the graph, any average fellow will ask questions as to why and how fluctuations occur. This naturally leads to a sense of feeling among everyone involved that they must strive to achieve some sort of consistency.

While the comparison may seem far fetched, it is actually not. The principle is the same: empower the worker who does the actual dirty work.

There are many advantages to transforming the government into a firm. Consider the earlier example of the voting center. If customer satisfaction maximization is the goal of the endeavor, then the idea of the token dispenser would occur naturally to anyone. Another is clearly written instructions on walls of the government office and more importantly officials adhering to it. One of the biggest reasons why citizens don’t follow rules properly in India is that there is no advantage; in fact, there is a disadvantage in following stated rules as they are not followed. (At an early age itself one is taught to view the stated rules with skepticism and go and ask the official concerned!) In an environment where the taxpayer is viewed as customer these inefficiencies should reduce.

However, the biggest advantage of the government viewing itself as a firm is this: Any good firm today prides itself in its ability to achieve stated goals quickly and efficiently. To this end, Collectors would have to view themselves more as CEOs out to achieve a stated mission. CEOs rarely get involved in the implementation. They delegate most work to capable underlings. It is this functioning that I would like to highlight when I use the term “firm”. Delegating in the right manner acts as a sort of empowerment to people at all levels and this is what is sorely required. In my own opinion, too much power is concentrated in too few and as stated earlier, this gives the impression of the Indian government being some mighty father figure ruling benignly over its citizens.

With this kind of a view, the problem of the government employing excess people is not all that bad, as long as they contribute to customer satisfaction. In my opinion, the subject of government deficit is approached in a very dogmatic way. Among the middle classes the reaction to government debt is very similar to that of personal debt – an attitude of taboo, an attitude of “How can there be a debt? We need to get rid of it immediately”. However, it is perfectly justifiable for governments to draw up a debt as long as they can provide quality services to their citizens. The problem in India is that a lot of debt goes to service more debt and very little reaches the common man. Therefore, if we think of the government as a firm we can perhaps take a more sophisticated view towards debt, employment and other issues.

Having elucidated the model, now we have to analyze for the shortcomings. Most of these ideas would have been propounded by brains more experienced and capable than I. They would have mostly failed because of the lack of determination from higher quarters. Therefore, the root of the problem is apathy and gross misuse of the system and this does not address that.

I acknowledge this. In fact, implementing such a philosophy will only have a small effect. It is not likely to revolutionize the scene. However, there are a couple of points I would like to bring to notice. Governance in India is becoming an extremely challenging task and is only set to become more complicated. More and more people are traveling abroad and see processes in developed nations and are questioning the inefficiencies they see in India. Also, the recent cinematic stereotype of the politician being a ruffian, uneducated purely evil animal is wrong. In fact, they are extremely shrewd and clever people who are adept at handling the “grey” areas in policy making beautifully. A close examination of many situations reveals that often maintaining status quo is the shrewd (the game theory solution) approach and therefore, nothing is done. In such a context, my opinion is that anything to improve the public response, however incremental, will be welcome.

The issues with the model are these:
a. The problem of agriculture and the government's role in that has not been discussed.
b. The issue of inefficiency due to hiring many more people than actually required cannot be tackled by this.
c. To achieve such a transformation, we need a charismatic and determined leadership. This brings us back to step one (sigh!).

To sum up, the traditional view of the Sarkar as some sort of strict parent ruling over the fate of the people HAS to go. Such a philosophy is untenable and inefficient. Considering that the old model is difficult the idea of the government as a firm maximizing taxpayer objective is an alternative approach (the above objections notwithstanding). Of course, the ultimate Utopia would be one in which the society aims to empower the individual and the government playing a corresponding empowering role. But that would be slightly too ambitious.

(P.S: This essay is based on some reading and my personal experiences. If anyone has more information and thereby has some objections please leave a comment. It would help in refining the idea.)


Gajanana G K said...

The model you proposed would be undoubtedly the best way to go about governing a nation as diverse as ours. But the incremental changes that spur and in turn get spurred by an inspired , dynamic and visionary leadership have to be set in motion.(That changes alone will call for better leadership is brought out well in the post- The current situation would be more of a cul-de-sac where staying put is the best option for the prudent politician)

However the model would be much more efficient if performance linked incentives, to borrow corporate paralance, are introduced. This would automatically rid the system of whatever languor might plague it including the oversized payroll.

Err...sorry for the abnormally long comment,can't resist it when I see a post like this that makes me think... :)

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