Reforms And The Art Of Plumbing

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Jul 27 2004, 03:43am hrs
The house is almost 57 years old. We have been drawing water from the ground but the overhead tank is getting empty sooner than it used to. The pipes have rusted and there are many leaks. At some places the leaks are at the same points as sewerage leaks. The residues and mud accumulated over the years have constricted the diameter greatly and the taps get only a trickle these days. The trees in the compound have grown and the roots have made their way into the pipes to take a stranglehold.

We are using twice the energy and ground water these days and yet, the supply at the taps is now just a portion of what it used to be. We realise that there are newer pipes in the market that have smooth surface for the water to flow with least resistance. Also, the lines we had made could have been straighter with lesser bends and couplings. There is a major job on hand if we want to live here.

Economic reform and development strategies have been full of resource augmentation and allocation to new

programmes and projects. Their management, like plumbing, has been unexciting and had to be dealt with by the executive at the lower levels. Reform meant changing the policies and not necessarily the practices, or the pipes. The slew of economic reforms is like designs for the tank and the bore well. What has been lagging behind is the reform in administration which is as clogged, rusted, long winded, crisscrossed, leaking and polluted as the old pipes.

Reform in our country has been wrongly sequenced. It began with the economic reforms of the early 90s and opening up of markets without sufficient attention to the institutions, administrative processes and channels. In some countries like China, administrative reforms preceded the economic reforms and in some, they were almost in tandem. The efforts at administrative reforms which began with the intuitive recommendations in the 60s have made little progress. At the operating level, the organisation & methods (O&M) sections or departments in the government have been an apology to industrial engineering science they were mute spectators to inefficient procedures that nurtured high transaction costs and reduced welfare. There is very little sign of the equivalent of whole scale business process reengineering in administration.

Reforms in administration are obviously not easy. Often, soft approaches of selling change do not work, as those currently enjoying power, prestige, and status will not want to risk them. This is also obvious from the corporate sector. Change and reform can be brought about by a strong willed leadership which must use the soft measures only for smoother and quicker acceptance than as main levers for reform. The levers for reform are indeed in the power of the leadership and its management. Intelligent leadership uses power tactically by first co-opting the elite forces for reforming the rest of the system. It may, in the very end, leverage on the rest of the system and the public to reform the elitist elements.

Economic reform with a human face does not necessarily result in welfare
Re-plumbing of administrative practices and processes is required
Regrettably, our political leadership was complacent even when it had absolute majority in the Parliament or the assemblies. The entrenched bureaucratic system has a cybernetic character it bends depending on the extent of power wielded by the leadership which, in turn, sedates the latter till power is lost. Thus, we have huge numbers of people in defunct departments. There is little flexibility in transferring and utilising manpower in activities which result in revenue mobilisation or useful service to target groups. We have business rules and procedures that beat all logic of management and engineering. The rules languish along with several schemes that are announced every year as part of competitive populism. Schemes, rules, procedures and forms survive even as the new ones add to the mindless labyrinth.

Development and growth are no longer a function of public policy choices, programmes and resource allocations. They appear to be more dependent on how quickly and effectively the channels are redone and processes reengineered with the farmer, deprived and the poor in focus. Economic reform with a human face does not necessarily result in welfare. It is administrative reforms that need a human vision and an aspiration to improve the situation where it matters most. While some states have governance projects with fancy names, these have remained in relatively unthreatening but highly visible areas. A few showcase studies and internationally saleable stories of computerised services will not change life for the majority of people. Total re-plumbing of administration is warranted keeping the delivery targets, points and the common man in view and working backwards.

The author can be reached at yrk@yagaconsulting.com