The only technical or domain expertise that most ministries boast of is carefully preserved in reams of files zealously guarded by hoards of clerks, section or desk officers, assistant directors, etc.
There is a broad assumption in society and in education that the skills you need to be a leader are more or less transferable. If you can inspire and motivate people in one arena, you should be able to apply those skills to do the same in another venue,” observes Art Markman, in his excellent article in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review. He goes on to add, “But recent research is rightly challenging this notion. Studies suggest that the best leaders know a lot about the domain in which they are leading, and part of what makes them successful in a management role is technical competence.” The top bureaucratic slot of the secretary in central and state government ministries, in fields as diverse as animal husbandry, finance, public health, infrastructure, communication, social welfare, transportation, etc, continues to be occupied by generalists, with little domain knowledge, leave alone expertise of the department they head. Unfortunately, often, their political bosses also seldom have much of a clue either of workings or any technical know-how of the ministries they lead. The only technical or domain expertise that most ministries boast of is carefully preserved in reams of files zealously guarded by hoards of clerks, section or desk officers, assistant directors, etc.
Once in a while, a private company or an individual is engaged to study any new issue or problem and their reports are duly used to update the ministry’s reservoir of technical expertise. Moreover, with not much time to spare from the never-ending routine of meetings, the secretaries can hardly make field visits, even if they are so inclined, to get any feedback on schemes under under implementation. Resultantly, projects or initiatives—if anyone still remembers them after years—fail to reach the desired objective, often ending up with a lot of finger-pointing for apportioning blame. The Clean Ganga Action Plan is one such classic example, with nothing much to show after being in the works for almost three decades.
Realising this deficiency, reportedly the PMO has recently mandated officers of additional and joint secretary level to visit 115 most backward districts, no less than six times a year, to coordinate central and state government efforts in development and achieve rapid transformation. Only time will tell the effectiveness of this laudable initiative. Political parties in power have often expressed their concern and intention to induct domain experts from other governmental departments or the private sector to improve success rates of delivery of various schemes and initiatives. Unfortunately, with the usual bureaucratic inertia, such announcements have seldom seen any action on the ground.
If track records of Sam Pitroda (who, as secretary of telecom, revolutionised the Indian telecom industry), Nandan Nilekani (CEO of UIDAI who created Aadhaar—the game-changer, saving the nation crores in direct benefit transfer and helping eliminate the scourge of ‘benami’ deals), and Ram Vinay Shahi (ex-CEO of BSES, who, as secretary, power ministry, put this sector on a path of sustained growth) are to go by, there is no dearth of high quality talent. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be blessed with a superb talent for winning at the hustings, but effective governance on a national scale is a different kettle of fish. For effective delivery of his well-thought-out initiatives, he has to zero onto people with domain expertise and high levels of commitment to get results, and merely depending on the ‘babus’ could be highly frustrating.
Charged with a missionary zeal to make India an economic powerhouse and provide jobs to millions of Indians, he will need to walk the extra mile. Undoubtedly, Modi, in his second innings, will have to pull out all stops to build his bureaucratic and even the political team, who could also be domain experts in their respective fields, to perform with a higher success rate, thereby leaving his imprint on the nation for years to come. If Modi’s dreams are to be shaped into a reality in a given time span, a beginning has to be made now, for India can no longer afford a system where a blind is leading the blind.
Former member, Railway Board