Rethinking India’s Policy Making Apparatus

rural children do not have decent classroom

rural children do not have decent classroomIf you look at the major schemes or policies of the government, central or state, from poverty alleviation programs to universal healthcare to universal education, the theme that straddles through all these is that most of these programs fail, to put it mildly. To be fair, governments have created islands of excellence in most segments; in healthcare, we have All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), in technical education, we have IITs and IISc; we also have examples of extraordinarily capable public sector organization like ISRO, NTPC and BHEL. The government of India and state governments also undertake some of the grandest programs in the world; they very successfully undertake polio eradication program, they smoothly organize Kumbh melas, the largest human congregation on earth, and the biggest of all, routinely organize the biggest and most complex of the elections in the world. But these are all example of one off successes, which are just too few to count.

 Whether you ask an industrialist, or economist, educator, factory worker or a tea-seller about the working of government, the only common lament, and a prominent one to be precise, is that government programs don’t actually deliver. Every person has his own explanation, ranging from monstrous corruption to lack of manpower, unrealistic policies, inefficient implementation and lack of money. To be frank, all these are correct, in different measures. And because of all these problems, most government programs and policies suffer from poor delivery, which in turn, shatters the confidence of general public.

Surely lack of experience cannot be the reason for the sclerosis that has set in our public services, public programs, public utilities and public institutions. The problem, sadly, tarts from the policy formulation and runs through the people and processes of policy implementation. Further, the mechanisms of outof-government consultation and feedback is either broken or are incapable or unwilling to elicit good feedback. Furthermore, the capacity of bureaucracy is limited. But there is an even bigger problem at work here. According to TSR Subramanian, former Cabinet Secretary of India, there is a massive disconnect between the policies and the realities on the ground. He also points towards the lack of desire of the system in delivering on the policies in right earnest.

Making policies and designing programs for a country as vast, diversified and complex as India is not an easy task for sure. Not only India is a large land mass, it also has numerous ecological zones, diverse geographical and agricultural zones,and not to mention the population with multitude of social and cultural differences. As such, there is a definite possibility that even the best
laid out plans may not be suitable to all. But experience shows that even the most fundamental policies or programs such as basic healthcare and school education do not deliver on ground. So, what’s going or has gone wrong? Why does Indian policy-making apparatus have such problem in formulating good policies and then implementing them in right manner?

Poorly framed policies?

India has been an under performer in most of socio economic sectors even though it has among the largest number of policies and programs for various sector. Such under performance per se arises due to adopting the wrong public policies, and/ or poorly implementing the right public policies.

According to experts, a good policy is made with high degree of legitimacy and accuracy. Legitimacy has three aspects; it needs to be procedurally legitimate, i.e. made by an authority legally authorized to make policies; it has to be perceived legitimate by those affected by it; and finally, it should be substantially legitimate, i.e. people must have confidence in the expertise of policy makers. Another attribute of a good policy is that it can be executed swiftly and successfully. That requires consultation with implementing agencies or institutions. Next, a good policy compensates losers to the justifiable level. Finally, a good policy has mechanisms for feedback assessment and course corrections while implementation.

On many of these parameters, India’s policy making process has invariably faltered. Some examples elaborate multiple weaknesses. In Budget 2016-17, the Finance Minister introduced partial taxation on employee provident fund (EPF), which is currently tax free. Such was the furor and protest that he had to amend the proposal within a fortnight. Last year, the government hiked the rail fares which had to be partially rolled back in wake of the protests. Even bigger case is of the much reform worthy Land Acquisition Bill which would have made it easier for the state to buy land for infrastructure and industrial usage. Thanks to widespread protests and political opposition, the plan was to be sent to freezing box.

All of these examples have something in common. In each of these, the debate on the possible impact of the proposed policy took place after policy-making, instead of before. In those cases where debates happened before, either all concerned were not talked to, or those impacted were not talked to, or compensated. In a fractious democracy like India, this is a sure invitation to trouble as government found out in each of the cases.

Broadly, Indian policy making apparatus suffers from three or four structural problems. First of all, there is too much fragmentation in the policy making apparatus. It is not uncommon to see three or more ministries/ departments working on one sector. Transport has been one of such sectors. At different points, ministries of railways, road, civil aviation, ports and shipping, and urban transport are all involved in regulating the sector. Same was the case with power and energy sector  which was taken care of by the present government when it merged the ministries of power with coal and renewable energy. There has to be a thorough rationalization of work across ministries to unify commands wherever required eliminate redundancy and overlapping controls.

Secondly, there is a sizable section of analysts who feel that the top bureaucracy is needlessly involved in policy implementation
rather than focusing primarily on policy making and leaving implementation to juniors. This comes from excessive centralization
of administrative powers. To deal with this, departments need to be strengthened with more powers so that they do not have to run to secretaries for administrative or implementation related decisions. Needless to say, information would still need to be seamlessly shared upwards to ensure any course correction at policy level is done without losing time.

Third, we don’t have enough of debate outside of government on any policy related matters. Surprisingly, this happens even though a reasonably sound template is available in form of budget related discussion that is carried out with non governmental entities like industry, academics and labor organizations. This lack of institutionalized mechanism to have informed debate on issues results in poor and ill identification of real winners and losers from any policy and in turn, possible suitable trade-offs. Fourth and finally, there is lack of organizational capability within policy making apparatus. According to a senior official who refused to be identified, even though there are outstanding specialists in respective departments, there is still great dearth of  top-of-theleague professionals. And because the system is not very welcoming of external professional advice, the quality of policies suffers. To take care of both of these problems, ministries should put in place policy advisory groups, which could have representation from academia and industry. These bodies can even draw on the expertise of the Niti Aayog which itself is a  policy deliberation body.

Ineffective implementation

But even the best planned policies can come a cropper if not implemented well. And implementation of policies and programs is not the forte of Indian bureaucracy. Even best guesstimates do not peg the implementation success to be more than half of the
target, which is not something to be proud of. To a large extent, the system has failed the people when it comes to delivering public services, including in areas of healthcare, education and food security which are the backbone of any prosperous country. But why do so many policies and programs fail to be implemented?

There could be implementation gap as a result of many factors, which range from the faulty policy design to poor institutional structure of delivery system, political interference, inefficient and corrupt workforce and lack of accountability. But the most important aspect of implementation failures is that policies are based not of realism but on political expediency. This makes policies dead on arrival, and hence non-implementable.

But that hardly means that good policies do get implemented. In a large number of them, detailing is so poor that they can be interpreted in multiple ways. And in a system with so many layers of implementers with little oversight, that is a sure way to failure. This poorly detailing happens because of two reasons; first, policymakers are not able to flesh out the details, and second, implementers are unable to agree among themselves. The case of smart cities initiative is an example. Even though the intent of the government in creating templates for ideal urban environment through the initiative is not suspect, the program specifics in terms of deliverable is still vaguely defined. Either way, the efforts are misplaced in such situations and implementation is unsatisfactory. As such, all policies need to be detailed enough to minimize ambiguities. Some degree of ambiguity may still be useful as it allows flexibility at grass root level but excess of it derails the program itself.

Second major reason for poor implementation comes from fragmented control structure that we talked about above. Because
of such fragmentation, massive organizational coordination is required. Additionally, new, complex programs need creation of new agencies and organizations which further complicate the matter. Such coordination is mostly not achieved, leading invariably to delayed implementation and massive cost overruns. Further complicating the problem is the jostling among departments to protect their ‘turfs’ which results in allocation of responsibilities based on relative power of departments rather
than what is required for effective administration. Finally, multiple approvals required from agencies with very different objectives lead to stalemates and inaction. Needless to say, radical simplification of procedure and doing away of needless approvals is the only way out of this messy situation. A welcome start has been made as redundant laws have started to be done away with.

Political interference and the resultant subversion and dilution are also understood to be reasons for suboptimal implementation of many programs and policies. Politicians often intervene in decision-making for electoral reasons with or without assistance from bureaucracy. This problem is exacerbated by corruption in bureaucracy which results in rent seeking behavior such as embezzlement and bribe-taking on the one hand and frustrating the honest work force on the other. Insulating bureaucracy from political pressures is the need of the hour which would protect honest workers from pressures and allow them to work fearlessly and make them less susceptible to politicians.

Besides these, non involvement of target groups is also a reason for poor implementation of the projects and programs. Whenever policies are made in isolation, i.e. through a top down approach, the chances of success dips as the potential beneficiaries feel alienated.

Next, Indian bureaucracy suffers from a poorly designed accountability structure. The accountability structure is currently
completely top down which means that bureaucrats are answerable only to their bosses who alone judge their performance. This leaves immense scope for subjectivity. Additionally, because of this completely isolated accountability system officers are
often serving bosses and not the people.  As Subramanian puts it, the well being of a bureaucrat depends on his relation with superiors instead of his work related performance.

To correct this problem, there is requirement to incorporate bottom-up approach in judging the performance of the bureaucrats. This is important because in countries like India, accountability structures are not evolved enough to filter partiality and favoritism out of the process. To make performance evaluation reliable and rewarding utility of generalists and specialists in bureaucracy. Both have their use  but at lower levels of bureaucracy and respective departments, there is perhaps an even greater need for making officials more receptive to the requirements of the people they serve.

Incidentally, the need for strengthening bureaucracy was felt long back and the Organization and Methods Division was set up in March 1954 in the Central Government to improve the efficiency of Public Administration.

In 1964, it mutated into the Department of Administrative Reforms. Also, there is a Comprehensive Capacity Building Program running under JnNURM which aims to enhance the capacity of urban local bodies (ULBs) to undertake developmental activities and achieve improved levels of basic service. However, with all these programs, the performance of officialdom has not improved much. This has led some experts to question the basic intent of the bureaucracy to improve itself.

rec-national-knowledgeLeveraging e-governance

The ICT has become a major tool for identifying the need of public and improving the service delivery world over. Internet based consultation, feedback and real time service assessment have revolutionized governance globally. But India is still tentative in fully exploiting this medium. For example, only recently, an expert panel headed by TSR Subramanian submitted its report on the new educational policy.  However, the report is not yet on the ministry’s website. If the report is available online, citizens can respond and offer suggestions. That would mean real participation of people in decision making process.

The government has embarked upon putting in place a strong e-governance system which is indeed a commendable effort. Projects like Digital India are
immensely potent in improving the workings of the government at policy making, implementation and
feedback levels. But for that, the primary focus of the e-governance has to be on reengineering the
government processes and reorganizing the working styles and methodologies instead of simply automating the existing processes as the National Knowledge Commission recommended on the issue of e-governance reforms. This migration from ‘as is’ to ‘to be’ has to be the motto for radically altering the policy making and implementing system.

Good governance is a direct outcome of sound policy making and effective policy implementation. A good policy addresses the stated, perceived and latent needs of the people. Those policies and programs which do stand true to the needs of the people and are implemented well, do bring positive changes in peoples’ lives (some such programs have been featured in later pages). It is the right of every citizen to have good policies made and delivered at the right place. Bureaucracy and political establishment derive their legitimacy from people in a democracy and are ultimately accountable to them. They cannot shirk that responsibility. Due to various reasons, the entire bureaucratic system has got inward looking and to some extent predatory. It is necessary therefore to reinvent the policy making process and implementation machinery so that good policies are made and are implemented. Further, the spirit of free flow of ideas within officialdom and from outside the government machinery must be preserved; it is the basic tenet of participative governance.

To be fair, we do see some actions here and there; the need is to institutionalize the best practices and strengthen the bureaucracy to be able to perform. Simultaneously, bureaucracy must be shielded from political pressures and be made transparent. Finally, as experiences of governance reforms in developed world shows, best policies are mostly simple, well targeted and efficiently implemented. Is it too much to ask from our chosen representatives and our best and brightest minds to make and deliver such policies? It should not be.