Governance reform baby steps


Good governance day aka Christmas and the late Atalji – India’s poet politician’s – birthday, dawned with some good news. The government unleashed two initiatives to signal its commitment to “jointness” a clumsy European synonym for better teamwork.
Both initiatives, curiously, relate to the breaking down of self- sufficient silos in administration to promote better utilization of existing resources and future planning focused more on the bang rather than the bucks being spent on pet projects, as is the case today.

Rejigging the military command structure


India shall soon have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDF) as the points person for a future Tri-command structure – melding the separate command structures of the army, air force and the navy into unified theatre command structures.

But as fleshed out till now appointing a CDF will merely genuflect to the concept rather than make a substantive change in the way India’s military machine works in silos. The CDF will not have exclusive access to the Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) nor shall he have exclusive control over the three service chiefs who will continue to report independently to the Minister. He shall not have a say in standalone matters of the three forces.

He shall be a member (but no more) of the Defence Acquisition Committee, chaired by the Minister. He will also be a member of the Defence Planning Committee, chaired by the National Security Advisor. The intertwined civilian chain in the Defence Ministry will remain intact. The CDF will be the Secretary of a new Department of Military Affairs. But he shall have the power to prioritize acquisitions across the three services giving him some leeway in managing the three service chiefs.

Also, he is designated as the Principal Military Advisor to the Minister – note, not to the Government, which would mean the Prime Minister. So, much will depend on the stature and credibility of the CDS – as is the case in all such top positions.

Given the shortage of air and naval assets it is unlikely that we shall have the resources to furbish stand-alone theatre commands anytime soon. But having a CDF can only help not hurt. It expands the number of top positions available for our officers who feel shortchanged versus the more plentiful promotion avenues in the civilian services.

Making Indian Rail nimble


The new governance-related institutional changes announced by the Railway Ministry seem to go much further much faster. By reducing the size of the Railway Board and opening each of the five (down from eight earlier) position to contestation by any of the eight individual services, it seems to strike at the root of silo based functioning and embedded entitlements of individual cadres.

Also upgrading all General Managers (close to 30) to Secretary scale – the same as members of the Board – is a unique endeavor seeking to introduce a horizontal governance architecture rather than the tiered, vertically arranged, steeply spiraling architecture of today.

Fears have been expressed that this will increase substitutability between the five board members and the general managers making the entire top bureaucracy susceptible to political pressure.

A committee of secretaries shall now work out how the eight separate services, through which “gazetted” officers are recruited, should be merged into a single service. “Gazetted” officers are those whose career paths are managed in a way to make them eligible for the top jobs.

It is not unusual to have a senior management service which is specifically trained to take up general management tasks. The Indian Administrative Service for instance is one such service.

Governance reform is all about getting right the plumbing – not enough of which has been in evidence lately. On civi-street the government has, previously, appointed more officers from services other than the IAS, in senior deputation posts within the Union Government and inducted a few experts laterally, outside the cadre system, through open competition.

All these small steps are progressive. They illustrate that embedded elite cadre privileges shall progressively be linked to skills, relevant experience and performance.

The bane of the Indian bureaucracy is that there is a rush for general management options because these positions traditionally come with pelf and perks. In fact, it is deep specialists who are in short supply and should be feted.

Pay reform is fundamental for good incentives

Take pay for instance. Pay remains rigidly hierarchical with the top person (invariably a generalist) drawing more than all below. This vertical structuring of bureaucracy is detrimental to teamwork because people are constantly deferring to an exogenously appointed top officer. Compare this with the organic growth of leadership in an unstructured group, like say a football team, where mutual admiration and respect based on performance determine who the team defers to.

A tiered, tapering architecture also spells pay stagnation for say an engineer, a statistician or a doctor, who might be happiest doing technical work but faces a future with lower pay and pension unless she switches over to general management.

Oh to be a GM!


Like any skill, general management is a way of life. You must like the pulls and pressures of the position to become good at it – more so in the public sector where it comes with more than a dollop of politics.

The core characteristics of a specialist and a generalist are quite different, and officers should be incentivized to find their core functional interests. Removing a pay differential across top generalist and technical positions allows officers to make career choices close to their hearts. It also helps bring about camaraderie amongst the top echelons.

Delegate powers more broadly to give heft to reforms

Naturally, flattening a pancaked hierarchy must be accompanied by decentralized budget and decision-making power. In the first instance the power to reallocate expenditure across budget heads to achieve budgeted outcomes, would have to be delegated to practice heads. All this requires deep consultation and careful sequencing and effective, real time audit, if the integrity of the departmental budget is to be maintained.

Flattened pay levels will also incentivize officers to stay at a position for five to ten years with, not more than four promotions in an entire career. Spending time at a position is integral to developing the granularity of experience required to give back to the job more than what an officer learns from it.

The year has begun well for governance reform. The intent is virtuous. The devil will have to exorcised once the details are known.

Also available at TOI blogs December 27, 2019

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