governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Babu-traps 101

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Are scams babu made? If a “competent authority” is hell bent on making money, generally, there is very little babus, even honest ones, can do to stop them. But many “scams” are just the outcomes of poor decision making and in these babus cannot escape the blame.

Personal honesty is never more than, at best, a mitigating circumstance when poor decisions are made whilst discharging the obligations of high public office. Effective babus are those who take decisions which neither get them, or anyone else, into trouble. Decisions in government, especially commercial ones, are never a routine application of rules. That is the job of the CAG, CVC and CBI. A routine application of rules actually ensures that no decision is ever taken. Yes, we should have better rules of course but then the same goes for our un-implementable laws. The law is an ass and shall remain so. Public decision making must go on.

The job of the effective public decision maker is to first carefully think through a “decision tree”. Text book, best practice methods require working down a “decision tree” with a decision arrived at as a last step. This stuff is only for consultants to remain perpetually employed. Effective public decision makers (as opposed to researchers) know the decision they need to make in public interest. The problem usually is how to get there.

When citizens were at risk from the cyclone in Ganjam, Orissa, Naveen Patnaik and his team knew what they had to do, as did the Government of Delhi and the Government of India, when the Commonwealth Games had to be hastily put together in the last few months. Both events passed successfully. The fall out for babus however, comes later and depends on the strength of the supporting decision tree analysis and actions taken.

Once we know what is to be decided the effective-public-decision-maker works backwards, up (not downwards as in best practice) the decision tree. The Effective Babu Decision Tree (EBDT) looks like this:

(1) Work out which sequential set of rules will bar you from taking and implementing the decision.

(2) Determine which of the following “Acceptable Rule Diluting Tools” (ARDT) are to be employed to surmount the obstacles: (a) Creation of a committee to dilute individual blame, build consensus and inter ministry commitment for the decision. (b) Legal precedents (opinion of Law Ministry) which could dilute the impact of the obstructive rule or differentiate its application away from the decision in question. (c) Identify potential regulatory vacuum, where no rules exist and fill this in with best practice application of the basic principles of competition, equity and transparency (d) Employ neutral third party experts to define best practice (eg. what should be the rate of discount while present valuing a future stream of revenue?)

(3) Always record a speaking order/note, carefully outlining why a particular decision is in public interest and indeed is the most feasible decision under the circumstances. Please note shortage of time, overload of work, cost of analysis not done, reliance on out of date or incomplete analysis, or the fact that your superior has asked you, whether in writing or verbally, to decide in a particular manner are poor and indeed no defense from personal blame.

(4) Look carefully at the set of actors who would support and oppose that decision and their relative “voice” in the media and on the streets.

(5) Tweak the decision to reduce the “spoilers” or “nay sayers” to the minimum, thereby reducing opposition.

Sounds logical doesn’t it. Why then doesn’t it happen routinely?

Five key babu traps operate to subvert the process.

First, most Mantris and babus are lazy or under work pressure, they neglect to record detailed “speaking orders/notes” which literally speak for themselves and are unambiguous. Failure to follow through the tedious decision tree process described earlier is fatal. This trap can be avoided. This is illustrated by the record of Arun Shourie, the Sun Tzu (author of the masterful Chinese classic: The Art of War) of India, as Minister Disinvestment from 1999 to 2004. He and his team of babus; Pradip Baijal, Pradeep Bhide, P.K.Basu and Amitabh Bhattacharya privatized Modern Foods, BALCO, HTL, CMC, VSNL, Paradeep Phosphates, HZL, IPCL and a bunch of publicly owned hotels even in the face of lack of popular support within the BJP. With the coming to power of UPA I in 2004 the “oversight wallahs” (CAG, CVC, CBI) took over with their “forensic audits” and tried desperately to find fault. The privatization team, Minister downwards, was personally clean as a whistle. This certainly helped. More importantly, the team, shepherded by the Minister, had been so diligent and wily in negotiating the EBDT that no institutional or personal, adverse comments could be made and the entire disbanded babu team went on to higher office.

Second, an astonishingly high number of babus fall into the “complacency ” trap of thinking that when a decision is reverted to them by a superior authority for a rethink,  they have already done their bit on file and the rethink on superior guidance, distances them personally from the outcome of the rethink. This clearly is contrary to EBDT rule 3 above. The buck always stops with you for what you have written on file. Citizens expect each babu in the decision making chain (usually there are three to four), to independently record their own opinion so that when the file reaches the “competent authority” she can benefit from the string of babu opinions.

Third, babus often fall into the trap of “domain inconsistency”. This includes independently rethinking and changing a decision, taken previously by a committee. This violation of the sanctity of committee work can spell trouble. Once you have created a committee to take a decision, any rethink must be reverted to that very same body. Even if a babu chaired the committee, she cannot abrogate to herself the right, or buckle under, to directions to personally rethink the original decision, which rightfully belongs to all the committee members. Remember, time pressure is no defense against violation of the basic principles of participation and transparency.

Fourth, babus often subvert their “high formal obligations” to their “low informal status” in Mantri-oriented ministries. They succumb to the “shock and awe effect” of directions from superiors. This is traceable to excessive interference by the Advisers in a Mantri’s office, public disenchantment with babus and systematic media “downgrading and disregard”. Recently a senior editor referred to a Joint Secretary, GOI- a position regarded in babu circles as the fulcrum of government, as a “middle level officer”.

Lastly retirement, especially from natural resource, Finance, Trade and Industry related Ministries, opens up mouth-watering options. The most correct and honest babu may, after a long 35 year, largely thankless career, spent protecting the public interest whilst practicing relative austerity at home, become susceptible to seeking a little material happiness. Whilst self-restraint and sensitivity to optics, is advisable, post retirement, golden parachutes are a trifling issue, if EBDT is religiously followed whilst in service.

The good news is that millions of babus in local government, district administration, state government secretariats and central government ministries religiously and successfully follow the EBDT in public interest during service and live happy and productive post-retirement lives. An efficient babu personnel management system would ensure that only the “greats” in the “efficient babu index” rise to the top. In its absence, too many of those who actively collaborate to subvert public interest or those who stoically remain personally clean, but succumb to being institutionally compliant, rise to the top. Neither category is of much use in taking decisions whilst avoiding scams.

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