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Structuring a new partnership

March 3, 2010

It is time for a new apex body to oversee social sector schemes with a mandate to create implementation structures that bring together expertise from the government, private sector and NGOs.

IN HIS Budget speech, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee noted three challenges. The first, widely noted and much applauded by corporate India, concerned finding means to cross the ‘double-digit growth barrier’. The second, less glamorous and hence less discussed, is in harnessing economic growth to make development more inclusive. The third, which attracted little notice and comment, relates to ‘weaknesses in government systems, structures and institutions’ that he recognised as a ‘bottleneck of our public delivery mechanisms’.

The Budget is not really the vehicle to address the last concern, unlike the first two, which are the meat of any budgetary exercise. However, it is noteworthy that with regard to governance too, the Budget had two significant initiatives. The first is the creation of a technology advisory group for unique projects, which will handle technological and systemic issues connected with various IT projects of the finance ministry. The second is an independent evaluation office, which will evaluate the impact of flagship programmes.

The minister also mentioned progress regarding implementation of the Administrative Reforms Commission’s recommendations. Yet, he looked on these as measures to support transparency and accountability, rather than steps to radically change systems and structures of implementation. The fact is that without radical improvements in governance, delivery of public goods will be inadequate, inefficient and ineffective. So far, the government has sought to increase the impact by pumping in disproportionate amounts of money. Even this often does not work. Marginal improvement — at best — in outcomes can be brought about by pumping in more money into the rusted and leaky pipeline, but beyond a point, the leak will only haemorrhage further and there will be decreasing returns.

There are many examples of dysfunctional government structures and inefficient processes. A very recent one is the proposed road under the runway at Delhi airport to provide a vitally-needed alternative link to the upcoming new terminal. Despite urgency associated with the Commonwealth Games, this project has been held up because a comparatively paltry sum of money (apparently Rs 35 crore) to be paid by the Delhi government to the execution agency (Delhi Metro, another government body) has not been paid. The former says that the money is to come from the ministry of urban development, which has — according to reports —not responded for a few months. It is reported that the Delhi government has sent a reminder! Here are government agencies, taking months to provide a small amount of money for a critical and timebound project. Examples of this nature — involving interfaces or disputes amongst arms of the government — abound, and it seems that no one is able or willing to step in and take a final decision.

The launch of 3G telecom services is another case of systemic chaos. Where we had a chance to leapfrog into a global leadership position, the delay in allocation has put us behind by many years. Doubtless, some corporates benefit from the long delay; however, mobile-telephony consumers (already near the 500-million mark) have lost out, and so has the country. All this because of wrangling within and between ministries, possibly instigated by vested commercial interests. This needed decisive high- level intervention or — better still — a systemic mechanism to prevent delays and solve such disputes.

THE government has often chosen to use the modality of an empowered group of ministers to resolve inter-ministerial issues. The previous government had dozens of them (practically all chaired by Pranab Mukherjee), their very existence pointing to the growing need for both coordination and single-point decision-making on complex/controversial issues. Rather than such an ad hoc mechanism, and the unfair burden it casts on a fully-occupied minister, it’s time to institutionalise a permanent way to deal with these matters, as a part of a restructuring of governance. Should there be sectoral tsars for communication, education, power and other such areas that tend to involve different ministries? Though confined to a ministry, TAGUP may be a model.

This arrangement will speed up decision-making, but only if it is known to have the complete support of the leadership; if not, bureaucrats will certainly stymie it. However, this is not enough. There is an urgent need for new systems, structures and professionalism especially in the social sector, now receiving very large funding. This Budget has provided massive allocations for rural employment, education and rural infrastructure. Managing these schemes efficiently is going to be key to whether development is truly inclusive or whether we become a schizophrenic society with unsustainable inequities. Yet, there is little attention on the appropriate people, systems or organisational forms.

Private-public partnership is often a good solution, but is not always the best solution — especially because it is increasingly interpreted as privatisation through the back door. A genuine partnership would use the domain expertise of the government organisations in areas like education and rural development, and combine it with the marketing, financial and managerial skills of the private sector. In addition, it is necessary to tap civil society organisations and social scientists to understand user needs and get feedback from local communities. This would mean creating new structures to allow and facilitate such inputs and evolving new systems that permit local variations and responsiveness to specific needs, in place of the present bureaucratic and rigid one-size-fits-all framework.

It may be time to experiment with a new apex body — akin to the Independent Evaluation Office — that oversees social sector schemes and has as its mandate the creation of implementation organisations that bring together expertise from government, private sector and NGOs. A pilot project in one state would prove the efficacy or otherwise of this approach.

This could be a path-breaking initiative that could synergise rural employment guarantees with skills development and social entrepreneurship and provides a flying start to the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. This may be an appropriate follow-up to FM Mukherjee’s concern for weaknesses in the government system.

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