Ramesh Ramanathan In Defence of Government

Ramesh Ramanathan of Janaagraha and now an advisor to JNURM writes in Financial Express (don't have thelink though - I get these in my mail):

In defence of Government

On a recent trip to Delhi, I visited an IAS officer acquaintance who had just begun a stint in a Ministry with the Government of India. I enjoy these occasional visits, learning about the challenges that those in government are facing - the intellectual debates, the public policy choices, the genuine political divides. My friend waved me in warmly as he completed his conversation on the telephone. It was my first visit to his new office, and as I gazed around I spotted a photograph of a cricket team. I recognised many officers from the same state cadre, all dressed in white, enjoying what had clearly been a pleasant weekend afternoon. I smiled and told my host, “I didn’t know you played cricket, when did this start?” He laughed at the photograph, and replied, “Oh, this began about a year ago. We had a ragtag team until one officer said we needed to get our act together and stop being such an apology - some of us were so out of shape, we would have had to pass a government order to stop the ball before it got to the boundary. He cracked the whip, and quite amazingly we actually started to come together quite well. Our first match was against the forestry team who fancied themselves and we beat the daylight out of them!”

He smiled at the memory of the event, and said, “We’ve gone from strength to strength, and along with it, an interesting bond has formed among us.”

“So which match was this photo taken at?” I asked.

“This was against the CFOs of the corporate sector. We lost, but by barely a whisker”, he said, adding in his self-deprecating style, “Government nowadays loses to the market, you know.”

I was intrigued by what the dynamics of this cricket team among the officers had done to the functioning of government. I inquired about this and he said, “It’s quite extraordinary - interdepartmental files that involve us get processed a lot quicker, not because we are doing someone a favour, but because so much of the context can be provided by just a phone call. It is almost as if this group has a special wireless connection.”

Indians disagree with each other on many issues, but there is one topic on which we have complete unanimity: our low opinion of government, both politicians and bureaucrats. I am frequently astonished at the sweeping generalisations that articulate and educated people make when it comes to describing what is wrong with our government. I find that this tendency is especially true among those in the corporate sector, and indeed rises with the level of accomplishment: an almost inverse relationship between private success and public disdain. Our general ignorance about the institutional design and constraints of government would be disturbing enough, but what is worse is our unwillingness to even acknowledge this fact or seek more information. In my continuing journey of learning about government, I have been struck by how almost every aspect of the institutional arrangement that we take for granted in the private sector is missing in government: the ability to specialise, the recognition for a job well done, the space to speak freely in front of a superior… the list is endless. These constraints are not just for bureaucrats, but are true for politicians as well.

This does not mean that government is filled only with well-intentioned, hard-working individuals; there are large numbers of corrupt people, those who misuse the power and position that their offices offer them. Even more frustrating than these blatantly corrupt are the seemingly well-intentioned ones who are adamantly closed-minded, refusing to allow the spark of new ideas to percolate in. But despite this, we need to avoid the blithe broad brushes that we so carelessly apply when criticising government. Because we do disservice to those champions within the system, the ones who are catalysing change every day. Every institutional arrangement has its own particular ethos; government is no exception. The relationship that exists between various layers of the bureaucracy, and more importantly, between the administration and elected representatives is a complex one. Political compulsions place many pressures on those inside government, forcing an almost daily examination of right and wrong. The Lakshman Rekha is drawn at different places by different actors; sometimes, the level of compromise is greater, sometimes less. Invariably, every individual has a personal threshold, beyond which compromise is not allowed.

For myself, the more I learn about government, the less willing I am to criticise it. This is despite the deep frustration that I feel about many of the shortcomings of government. But I sense an equal, if not greater, degree of frustration on the part of those who are within government. We have vast challenges in our society; many of the answers will have to come from government, and it must change the way it works on many fronts. With Indian democracy maturing, we cannot let up the pressure for change, but we definitely need a more sophisticated articulation of what is wrong, going beyond the black-and-white barcodes to see the shades of grey in our government.

As I walked out of my friend’s office, I couldn’t help wondering how many such people there were, scattered across union and state and local governments. Senior officers to second division assistants, Members of Parliament to municipal councillors, all chipping away, playing their role, bearing the burden of public cynicism every day, being indicted by people who have little understanding of the extent and scope of the constraints under which they operate, while they quietly clear files, sometimes faster because of a special bond of camaraderie formed by a cricket team.

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