Re-engineer the Cabinet and ministries

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Mar 19 2005, 05:30am hrs
Parliament has done well in amending the Constitution and limiting the number of ministers to 15% of its total strength. Thus, we have about 68 ministers looking after over 100 departments. The numerical limit does not address the issue of ensuring that the ministers have subjects that are meaningfully aligned with developmental priorities; that these subjects are logically designed; that they are assigned Cabinet or lower status depending on the nature of the subjects than the individual seeking it; that these are linked well across ministries as also downstream, till the citizen experiences the outcome.

We now have a maze of ministries with several cogent areas divided among different ministries and disparate subjects bundled under single ministries. For instance, we have the aspect of knowledge or intellectual property management, which is increasingly an important national agenda, strewn amongst the ministries of science and technology, industry, and even agriculture. We still have the ministry of statistics and programme implementation which could have been a logical domain for the Planning Commission. We have the ministry for overseas indian affairs with scant agenda.

We have separate ministries for power, and non-conventional energy sources instead of a ministry of energy that would combine all aspects of energy and its optimised regulation, overview and development. We have a separate ministry for food processing industries, created away from the ministry of agriculture, whereas one would have expected greater synergy if they were together. Who would imagine that a soft title like ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions would cover the CBI as well

We have ministries for several industrial sectors, such as petroleum, coal, mines, fertilisers and aviation, even as the world is moving away from multiple controls over state-owned enterprises and assigning them to one administrative ministry.

We now have a new ministry for ocean development and a comment on a similar move in Taiwan, even if not very apt, makes for interesting reading: DPP, for ideological reasons, insists on creating a ministry of ocean affairs, and for this purpose frantically looks for things for it to manage. Thus, tourism is split under three departments: tourism on land is the responsibility of the ministry of economy and trade, tourism at sea comes under the ministry of ocean affairs, while planning and administration of national parks and such like, is the jurisdiction of the ministry of environment and resources. (Hsu Yu-pu, Advisor National Policy Foundation, Taiwan).

Presently, it is a maze of ministries with disparate subjects clubbed together
Challenge will be to arraign the visions and missions at the ministerial level
Successive governments in India have been promoting citizens charters, codes for good governance, smart governance, and e-governance. However, tinkering at the delivery end without a matching contemporary vision, coherent designs and processes will not be sufficient. The challenge would be to arraign the visions, missions and assumptions at the cabinet and ministerial levels, in a cascading manner, against the requirements of the developmental agenda. Re-engineering, which may follow, would help in unbundling illogical functions, activities and programmes. It would also help in coalescing where bundling would improve boundary management, focused action, and lower transaction costs.

It may also be useful to compare the grouping of activities in other countries. The Cabinet of the USA has secretaries of state for only 15 subjects. In the case of the UK, there are 20 Cabinet ministers, though there are numerous junior ministers under each. The subjects of work and pensions are clubbed under one ministry that of environment, food & rural affairs. Trade and industry are under one. Culture, media and sports are together.

In Australia, there are ministers for subjects such as aged care and multicultural affairs. In Canada, there are ministries for Canadian heritage, multiculturalism, public safety and emergency preparedness. The numbers are reportedly under 40 in Canada and under 20 in Australia.

When organisations die, people remark that the top must have been responsible and that trees die from the top and fish rots from the head. If the Cabinet and the ministries are not re-engineered, the attempt to give life at the service-end may soon appear like dressing on dead fish.