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Economy shining but where are the specialists?

By Jaimini Bhagwati in New Delhi
October 11, 2007 15:17 IST
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We need to make renewed efforts at promoting a higher degree of specialisation within government.

The state of governance in India is bemoaned in private living rooms and public forums in the country. An average citizen's dismay at the lack of access to primary education and basic health facilities for significant pockets of our population is accompanied by a sense of helplessness. At the same time, there has been unprecedented consistently high economic growth for the last five years.

Our stock markets are soaring and Indian companies (including public sector firms) have demonstrated their ability to compete internationally and achieve sustained high growth. Inevitably, in such an environment, there is criticism about government performance and praise for the corporate sector. Some attribute the achievements over the last 15 years to the private sector's dynamism and their conclusion is that the smaller the government the better. And, only a minority defends the performance of officials against sweeping generalisations about corruption and lack of productivity.

To state the obvious, core government functions such as defence, finance, trade policy, home (internal security) and external affairs cannot be outsourced. Within these and several other areas we need officials who are productive and enhance their professional skills during their careers. Clearly, a number of complementary reforms are required to address shortcomings in efficiency. This article focuses on the need for greater specialisation in government as a means to increasing productivity.

According to a list prepared by the Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances (DARPG), there have been 73 reports on administrative reforms since 1812. A quick check indicates that recommendations for specialisation in government have been made repeatedly in past reports. For instance, the Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC) headed by Morarji Desai (later K Hanumanthaiya) (1966-1970) suggested specialisation in the following eight areas: (a) economic; (b) industrial; (c) agricultural and rural development; (d) social and educational; (e) personnel; (f) financial; (g) defence and internal security; and (h) planning. This ARC also suggested mid-career examinations for appointment to senior posts but these recommendations were not accepted. In the early 1980s, the Economic Administration Reforms Commission (EARC), headed by L K Jha, recommended changes in personnel policies to promote specialisation.

Later, in 1997, the Fifth Pay Commission recommended that government officials should be allowed to go on deputation to the private sector presumably to promote a result-oriented approach.

Many officers join government with strong academic credentials. Subsequently, frequent transfers and allocation of responsibilities that do not match their background and aptitude lead to an erosion of skills. Consequently, as the years pass by, many officials become increasingly less marketable. This leads to a sense of insecurity and an unquestioning attitude. It follows that productivity would be at a discount as far as these officers are concerned.

The top managers in the private sector too are usually from a generalist, e.g. marketing stream and for several years before they become CEOs they perform general management tasks. However, irrespective of the nature of a private firm's business, profits are the driving force. In contrast, government's accountabilities are very varied with multiple objectives spreading across diverse fields such as social welfare, agriculture, internal security, finance, etc. As a result, there is almost no overlap in expertise across these functions and it is relatively easy to mask lack of performance under an overarching umbrella called "public interest".

Most of us would agree that a beat constable should not be moved to a compounder's job in a pharmacy without training. In government, senior officials are moved from the ministry of commerce to home affairs or from defence to agriculture at short notice. Such movements are often based on the availability of vacancies rather than the requirements of the job. One explanation offered is that detailed scrutiny derived from domain knowledge is expected to be provided by those at junior levels.

As it happens, more often than not, junior and mid-level officials are also frequently transferred and they do not have the opportunity to acquire specialised skills. Again, it could be argued that complex issues are referred to special committees set up by the government with established experts as members. It could also be claimed that the government has set up statutory regulators to distance itself from operational decision making and subject-specific technicalities.

However, government officials need specialised skills to interact with regulators on policy issues. Further, in an increasingly knowledge-intensive world wouldn't it be asking too much of generalist managers to spot the better options out of alternative courses of action?

In the past, it was felt in government circles in India that specialisation should not be encouraged because it distracts officials from taking all points of view into account in decision making. This view appears to be changing and in the last few years there has been a concerted effort to provide mid-career training to officials. As of now, there are short-term courses in India or well-known universities in the developed West.

However, unless the courses impart specific skills and subsequent postings are related to the training received, would such learning be effective? One step forward, and this is purely illustrative, to foster specialised and general management skills, is for officials to opt for one stream or the other at the time of entry.

To summarise, the issues discussed in this article and much more have been examined any number of times in the preparation of the 73 reports from 1812 till now. It is to be expected, therefore, that officials will yawn if they were told once again about administrative reforms and the need for greater specialisation. The sub-text of the exasperated smiles on their faces is likely to beĀ -- get the basics done and the rest will follow, e.g. establish clear land titles throughout the country and make this information readily available on publicly accessible web-sites. Perhaps there hasn't been more follow-up on past proposals for specialisation because some in government continue to strongly believe that it is not required.

A commitment to greater specialisation should lead to the establishment of transparent procedures for government appointments to crucial positions. This, in turn, may contribute towards better governance. All things considered, we need to consciously suspend disbelief and make renewed efforts at promoting a higher degree of specialisation within government. If an overhaul is not possible, incremental change is the only option.
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Jaimini Bhagwati in New Delhi
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