The IAS as transformers

Meeting Modi’s mandate for transformative change

mukul

Mukul Sanwal | January 13, 2016



Prime minister Narendra Modi has identified eight key thrust areas for governance. In a year-end meeting, he gave the secretaries to the government of India two weeks to translate that political vision into an action plan. The defined objective is to bring about ‘breakthroughs rather than incremental change’ by encouraging convergence and breaking down silos. Execution is to be improved in terms of ‘product, process and delivery’ and the secretaries have been urged to prioritise schemes, set targets and formulate a monitoring framework. 

The eight thrust areas are: good governance, employment generation, education and health, farmer-centric initiatives, innovative budgeting, accelerated inclusive growth, Swachh Bharat and Ganga rejuvenation, and energy efficiency. These cover a variety of sectors, cross-cutting areas and outcomes, leaving the question of deciding the organising principle to the top civil servants.

The unresolved question that has not been defined in clear terms by the political executive, or even by the NITI Aayog, is ‘where the country is headed in the Asian century’, as a compass, or frame of reference for the action plan. The US and Europe focused on trade and technology, China on infrastructure and manufacturing, while we have so far sought to chart a course between stressing human development goals, the public sector and lately infrastructure to enhance wealth and well-being. As the world moves into a services-based economy, with two-third of India’s population below 30 years of age, the national goal should be to become a global knowledge power. This meta goal should form the purpose of the action plan and against which the outcomes will be measured at the end of the year.

This overall objective will then provide three integrating themes to bring together the eight thrust areas. First, the key to a transformation in governance will be the budget, because a fundamental change in the budgetary system is a precondition for breaking down the bureaucratic silos. Budgetary allocations should be to policy areas, not organisations, and with defined objectives. Harnessing opportunities in a knowledge-based economy requires simultaneous investment in infrastructure, skill development, research and innovation within an integrated approach, and these areas should get the bulk of the resource allocation.

Second, digitisation will be the key in service delivery and a networked government must be digital by default. It will be important to separately identify services to be digitised and where efficiency gains will be achieved through digitisation; both will be key elements in achieving inclusive growth. The objective should be an integrated website and integrated forms for all government services, and it could be called ‘Gov.Bharat’. 

Digitisation is a way of doing things; it is different from computerisation in two critical aspects. First, it requires understanding each step of service delivery from the perspective of the citizen, regardless of the channel. Thinking about digital capabilities can design and deliver the best possible experience across all parts of government. Second, data and metrics should focus on providing insights that in turn drive policy decisions. Management teams need to shift priorities from small-scale exercises to focusing on critical areas and driving the use of analytics across the government.

Third, integration or joined-up government will require joint identification of ‘what has to be achieved’. Similarly, clarification of the problems being addressed, clarity on the objectives and identification of outcomes and mechanisms must be accepted by all. The experience in other countries has been that national cooperation impacts on policies delivered locally, theme-based partnerships work and common targets and goals support implementation. 

These cross-cutting areas lead to three programmes – for urban areas, rural populations and areas where strategic shifts are needed. 
First, urbanisation must be recognised as a global mega-trend. By 1970, three-quarter of the population of the industrialised countries had moved to cities and into the middle class. In China, more than half the population is living in cities and in the middle class. By 2050 two-third of global GDP will come from cities. Municipal governance in India needs to broaden its scope from regulating land use, providing services and collecting local taxes to a broader thrust on supporting the transformation. 

The urban transformation will need to integrate public transport, energy efficient buildings and education to meet the needs of local knowledge based and manufacturing units to set up a virtual circle of sustainable development. This covers the thrust areas identified by the political executive.

Second, it must be recognised that rural populations should be enabled to move to cities and into the middle class. Primary and secondary education, with an emphasis on mathematics, science and English, needs to be boosted through innovative means – like providing stipends to graduates to live and teach in villages for a year; shared tablets and specially prepared educational material that will lead to familiarity with information technology. A solid grounding, including in Swachha Bharat as a personal goal, should lead to self-study and development at the university level, where the focus should be on improving the library and providing material over the net rather than rely only on teachers.

The key gap in agricultural production is access to credit. Innovative Aadhar-based micro-credit schemes for the small and marginal farmers with credit insurance can be a game-changer in increasing production and incomes. This will require a policy shift from the current industry bias with its massive defaults to providing for state delivered crop insurance and provision for bad debts in drought-prone areas, for example. 

The policy shift will be away from a basic human needs approach to providing infrastructure, including digital access, and production-based budgetary support. For areas like health, the focus should be on using digitisation to improve access and efficiency rather than enhanced budgetary support. Similarly, Swachha Bharat and Ganga rejuvenation need to be integrated in existing programmes – sewage, pollution control and afforestation – rather than being treated as construction and engineering add-on’s and a separate activity. For example, the waters of the Ganga now provide a substantial share of the drinking water needs of cities where demand-side management can make a big difference, just as modified irrigation practices can increase productivity with lesser demands of water. However, the current focus on increasing agricultural yields stresses increased inputs rather than new seeds and practices. Also, the ecological, societal and behavioural aspects of the transition from rural to urban areas have been ignored, largely because of the static project approach adopted by donors like the World Bank.

Third, attention needs to be given to sectors and schemes which have outlived their utility or are no longer needed and new thrusts are required in changed circumstances. Each department needs to ask itself what its purpose is and if it is making a difference. Regulatory departments need a more significant shift with digitisation and the use of information technology. For example, should police numbers keep increasing with the use of CCTV and patrol cars in cities? Is the security doctrine of a ‘two-front war’ still relevant or the stress should be on cyber warfare, missiles, special operations and sea lanes with drastic cuts in traditional capital equipment, the size of the land army and air planes? For example, just as the US’s economy reaped the benefits of the space programme, India’s economy will benefit hugely from developing the country as a cyber superpower, in an area where we already have strong competitive advantage – ‘big data’ will be the driver of future growth, market share and security.    

The experience of other countries in large-scale government transformation is that they are easy to formulate but difficult to execute, and only about half of these efforts have met their objectives. This is because government interacts with citizens, and departments interact with each other, and a transformation really involves a reinvention of government functions and how they operate. Whether the experience here will be different depends on the IAS. 

Sanwal is a former civil servant and UN diplomat.

(The article appears in the January 16-31, 2016 issue)

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