The art of committee formation

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Oct 4 2004, 06:06am hrs
Despite all the jokes about committees or consultative groups, they are the only meaningful mechanisms to comprehend complex issues, instill objectivity, elevate the quality of decisionmaking, manage risks and bring out meaningful action agenda. A war, a disaster, a crisis or a hi-tech mission highlights their criticality.

The controversy about the consultative groups of the Planning Commission may be missing the woods for the trees. The problem is in the nuts and bolts of committee-formation and not ideological inclinations. Polemics have indeed diverted attention from administrative aspects to ideology and personal innuendos.

Administration must know the simple rules of forming a committee which, inter alia, are that: an effective committee or consultative group must have limited numbers so that there is no free riding and hijack of the report by the backstop (i.e., have no more than 7 for each, certainly not 38); it shall have committed members who have individually and demonstrably attained expert levels of knowledge in that domain ( do not add those who only have nice office addresses or media presence) and who are prepared to devote the mental space and time (i.e., take prior commitment from all, which has not happened); the terms of reference (ToR) be supported by design/processes that assure a robust output (i.e., relate the inputs and presentations to the ToR, not merely to involve several interested parties); and there are no conflicts of interests (i.e., avoid likely beneficiaries, direct or indirect, as members).

There are lessons to be learnt from the Vision 2020 document of Andhra Pradesh, which had such hype and gloss that it took years for people to point out the deficient assumptions, data problems and inconsistencies between contents and conclusions. The document was prepared by world leaders in corporate strategy rather than public policy, with advice from professors in management rather than development and scores of civil servants, economists, and specialists of national and international repute. Exceptions apart, members of most sub-committees had little to contribute except their name. However, none dared criticise the document because it was fortified with a formidable pedigree. It was indeed just a tactical move to showcase intent and hence, devoid of accountability. Imagine having such callously formed committees launching a satellite at ISRO, planning counter-insurgency operations or managing natural calamities!

Committees are meaningful mechanisms for improving decisionmaking
Commission should apply the simple rules of effective committee formation
The consultative group on industry, for instance, is unwieldy with 38 members. Consequently, even the best of experts in public policy with full devotion will have to struggle to make a point. The design of the first meeting on 22nd September and the presentations were pre-determined though the first ToR says to provide guidance in selection of the key issues and emerging problems for preparing inputs on industry for the mid-term appraisal document of the Tenth Five Year Plan. The pre-chosen subjects are consumer protection; automobile, auto component sector; chemical and pharmaceutical sector; jute and textile; leather; steel; sugar industry; heavy industry and public enterprises. The presentations were to be made by industry associations, consulting companies, civil society organisations and a few others. Several of those making presentations have their representatives on the consultative group, rendering either their membership or the presentations redundant and provoking issues of conflicts of interest.

Another term of reference is to consider the appraisal notes prepared by the concerned ministries/department for inputs to be prepared on the subject by the Planning Commission. Such appraisal notes could attract the provisions of the Officials Secrets Act and the members may indeed be open to risks arising from it. The third term is to review the draft material to be prepared by the Planning Commission on the subject and to give critical advice and directional inputs for further improvement. Apart from giving directional inputs, the official order also enables the members to set up sub-groups/steering committees of officials both from the central and state government, which gives it authority beyond mere consultation. Obviously, the purpose, terms of reference, size, composition, and the processes are too disparate to be meaningful. It would be prudent for the administration to get back to the drawing board and apply the simple rules of effective committee formations and avoid controversies.