Corporate Management isn’t What Civil Service Needs

Corporate Management isn’t What Civil Service Needs: Administrative reforms can only be delivered by change in executive goals, not change in personnel

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There is a new attempt at administrative reform on the anvil. SD Shibulal has reportedly been appointed chairman of a three-member taskforce to bring about “major bureaucratic reforms through Mission Karmayogi”. Earlier, another HR consultant had been appointed chairman of a capacity-building mission under the Union personnel ministry.

We have high regard for Shibulal and we wish him well. We also strongly believe that public administration and corporate management are like chalk and cheese. In other words, the assumption that corporate managers will dramatically wave a magic wand which will transform the administration of India is highly misplaced.

The entire hierarchy of a company is directed towards strengthening its financial bottomline. There would be other objectives also, driven by global and governmental goals like climate change, sustainable management, CSR. However, every corporate manager, from top to bottom, knows that profitability is the ultimate goal.

Making profit isn’t govt’s job

Arun Maira, former member of the Planning Commission, has straddled many worlds – corporate management, consultancy and government. In his book, An Upstart in Government, he has described the conundrum in public administration accurately.

He says, “I have to admit that it is much harder to get tangible results in the government, especially in a non-executive planning function, such as the Planning Commission’s. I have to also explain that the scope of the government’s responsibilities is much larger than that of any private sector company.”

Maira adds: “To produce outcomes that are equitable, and not only efficient, in providing health services to all citizens, for example, is more difficult than selling medicines to only those who can pay the price that covers their cost of discovery and production. The government’s job is not to make a profit. It is to improve the world for everyone. ‘Making profit is easy, changing the world is hard,’ was the poignant statement of a business management student at an international conference on business responsibility.”

Grassroots reality and political sensitivities

The civil servant has a much wider canvas than a corporate manager. He is chasing, all at once, multiple goals under a political system that has its own compulsions and priorities. Goals can also change overnight and he has to adjust rapidly, shedding his conceptual conditioning all at once.

Civil servants are essentially political administrators, and by training, exposure and experience, every civil servant instinctively understands the grassroots reality, the procedural ecosystem and the political sensitivities of every decision. To be eligible for appointment as Joint Secretary, an officer has to serve in various capacities with an unblemished record for a minimum of 20 years.

They bring to the central government knowledge about the social, political, economic and cultural peculiarities of states and diverse ministries. That knowledge is far more valuable than the domain knowledge that a private sector expert commands when it comes to successful designing and implementation of schemes for public welfare.

In the last seven decades, several governments have launched hundreds of programmes and missions, many of them successfully steered by civil servants. The reforms of 1991 and beyond, management of multiple crises situations both in the political and economic spheres, navigating fundamental changes in policy direction – all these have been handled with aplomb by a resilient and adaptable administration.

Advice for Shibulal

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Shibulal, who has dealt closely with civil servants, will surely know their strengths and weaknesses. He must understand that the problem lies not with individual players, but with the team and the management of the team – which includes the political, judicial, and investigative arms and the whole gamut of laws, rules and jurisprudence.

I am sure he will quickly realise that what governance requires is a system change, not really change of personnel. Governance can improve if goals are clear and well-defined and this, in a federal multiparty polity like India, would require continuing engagement with the states and with political parties. Once there is consensus on goals, once the political executive is committed to these goals and will drive them from the top, administration can be channelled towards their achievement.

He will also need to suggest ways to bolster the sagging morale and pervasive fear that seem to haunt top level administrators today. There has to be clarity of purpose, confidence of political support, the return of professionalism in administration. He would do well to confine himself to overarching changes, not bits and pieces reforms, as many commissions and committees have attempted to do in the past.