There was an interesting article recently in one of the news-dailies, on the number of initiatives started with much fanfare by state governments which seemed to have ‘vanished without a trace’. These ranged from infrastructure projects, like canals for irrigation, drinking water, etc, to a major policy initiative like health insurance for poor. There was also a social initiative like ambulance service that failed to see completion. A friend cynically called this the ‘foundation-stone-laying syndrome’ that permeates the Indian political system, where we are very good in announcing the initiative with much fanfare—particularly as an election date nears—but then do not have a capable public system to deliver it or the administrative discipline to ensure successful execution.
Take the case of Indian Railways. Every year, come Budget time, the minister at the helm would announce a slew of new projects that cater to his/her constituents and supporters, notwithstanding the fact that past projects are way behind schedule and clogging the execution pipeline. It finally took a bold minister, Suresh Prabhu, to announce in his maiden Railway budget that he will not undertake any new major projects and will instead focus on finishing those in the pipeline.
The foundation-stone syndrome is not limited to politicians alone. Our business leaders, too, are happy to sign MoUs on investments of thousands of crores of rupees at much-publicised state investments meets given there is no expectation of actual implementation. No wonder, then, the percentage of MoUs implemented make for just a high single-digit or low double-digit figure.
This raises two inter-related questions. First, why do we announce so many new initiatives when we already have many clogging the execution pipeline? Second, why are we so bad at execution?
The first question has many answers. Perhaps, the root cause of this is the nature of our competitive politics where a new government, more often than not, junks policies/projects launched by its predecessor, or sets up another review committee to justify the launch of its own initiatives. It is as if the new government cannot be seen completing a project launched by a rival party or coalition—because it has to then share credit for the project. It is rare for an opposition party/coalition to overcome its rhetoric if it comes to power and embrace a worthwhile initiative of its rival—in the manner the Narendra Modi-led government did with Aadhaar by not only keep it going, but also by accelerating enrolment and expanding the scope of the initiative after it saw the potential benefits of this.
The second question is more complex, but at the root is the lack of capacity and the weak capabilities of our public systems to deliver outcomes. Let me give four examples.
The first is of a district collector, who must implement dozens of policies/initiatives/ projects to today even as new ones get added every year. This is despite the government set-up remaining nearly the same year after year. Rarely is an initiative designed using principles of ‘concurrent engineering’, where key stakeholders are involved right at the design phase and issues of implementation are taken into consideration upfront. No wonder, last-mile execution of even well-designed policies range from shoddy to non-existent as involvement of key stakeholders like the collector and her capacity to execute is rarely taken into consideration. An implementation plan to make her job easy is also almost never provided.
Second, consider the case of the state irrigation departments, where irrigation projects have not overshot deadlines by mere month or years, but by decades, and are still nowhere near completion. In one state, BCG found an annual ritual of prioritising a fraction of the projects in the pipeline depending on the amount of money allocated in the budget. No wonder, therefore, that many projects were delayed, because every year, many from the preceding year were de-prioritised and new ones were taken up. It does not help that in absence of any MIS or a decent project management system, monitoring considered just the amount of money spent at the end of the year to certify project success rather than actual work on the ground. A robust criterion for project prioritisation—based on extent of completion and impact, and supported by a simple traffic-light system to monthly monitor progress on the ground—can go a long way in driving accountability and accelerating completion.
The third example of the failure to execute is rooted in the time-consuming, daily administrative tasks of the executive which leaves very little time to focus on implementation. We saw this in state education ministries—right from the office of the principal secretary to the block education officers, who spent most of their time in performing routine administrative tasks such as managing the large number of department employees, including teachers. This left them with little time to focus on improving the learning levels in state-run schools, which should be the most important outcome metric for the education department. Systematic use of technology to eliminate manual tasks and reduce anomalies which lead to proliferation of court cases, an integrated database and an MIS on outcome metrics—supported by process discipline of monthly reviews—can go a long way in ensuring execution excellence.
The final example shows the importance of data analytics in taking the right decisions by the executive team to ensure success. When the Right to Food was passed by Parliament, it fell on the states’ public distribution systems to ensure its implementation—and one deadline after another posted by the Centre was missed. A big challenge for last-mile execution was the high percentage of loss-making fair price shops (FPS), a key reason for leakages. So, in one state, the PDS team considered tripling the commission to the FPS shop-owners to give a heft to their profitability, till a simple analysis—which any private retailer would do routinely—showed that simply increasing the commission would increase the proportion of profitable FPSs from around 20% to 40%. The rest of them would still make losses, and thus leakages were unlikely to stop. Building capability to take data-backed decisions can avoid costly mistakes that lead to inordinate delays and execution failures.
The present government, under the stewardship of PM Modi, has publicly committed to addressing execution issues. However, building capacity and capability of a complex public organisation is not easy and will take years of sustained effort. But, no one will question that this is the crying need of the hour for the country. A good place to start will may be to stop the fanfare around laying foundation stones and only celebrate a project upon completion or when a desired outcome is achieved.
The author is senior partner and director, BCG Henderson Institute.Views are personal