Get out of the box

Each government institution has to re-invent itself in this decade

Written by Arun Maira | Published: January 4, 2012 3:13:53 am

The president of India has declared 2010-20 as India’s “decade of innovation”. The prime minister,addressing the National Development Council on July 24,2010,said,“I would like to emphasise that as we proceed with our ambitious plans,which require substantial deployment of resources,we must keep in mind the need to spur innovation as a driver of national performance… The government too must innovate both at the Centre and in the states. There is a strong case for each institution in government to try to re-invent itself to reflect changing needs and circumstances and changing expectations.”

Citizens’ changing expectations of the government,and their impatience with the slow pace of government reform,became manifest in the Anna Hazare movement which demanded immediate response from the government’s legislature,cabinet and bureaucracy. The movement was remarkably successful in mobilising masses of people using the innovations of 21st century social media technology. Social media was also used in the 16th century to mobilise masses,as The Economist (‘How Luther went viral’,December 17,2011) explains. Martin Luther created a viral communication campaign to mobilise opinion against the Pope and the Catholic Church. The printing press,then recently invented,played a role in enabling the campaign. But the principal innovation,The Economist explains,was in the process of communication,which used citizens’ channels for spreading around the news and views laterally and very speedily. The point to note is that processes can be innovated even without technology. Indeed,Mahatma Gandhi’s innovation of the non-violent process to challenge non-responsive governments,long before the Internet,has been deployed in many movements across the world,including Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign,the Prague Spring in Eastern Europe,and lately the Jasmine Revolution in Arab countries (which combined non-violent protest with the use of Internet-based communication,as has the Anna Hazare movement).

Democratic government,in its classical definition,is government of the people,by the people,for the people. Therefore,processes are required to ensure that government can perform all three functions properly. Universal franchise with elections regularly and fairly conducted can ensure that the government is of the people. India scores very high marks for its abilities in this regard,and indeed is an international benchmark. But government has to be for the people too,and must be accountable to them. Indian citizens’ unfulfilled expectations led to the RTI movement,and thereafter to movements for rights to service (citizen’s charters) and anti-corruption. Finally,government must be by the people. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution,passed 20 years ago,remain implemented only in letter and barely in spirit.

Effective government for the people requires much better communication between government and the people. Government functionaries and people’s elected representatives must listen to people more effectively than they have,and they must communicate to them more credibly too.

Governments’ communication processes are stilted and slow. They are outmanoeuvred by the more nimble,viral,and less costly too,communication processes of civil society movements. The breakdown in effective communication between government and people enabled the Anna movement to appear more trustworthy to people than their elected government. Left-wing extremist movements have also proven to be much more effective than government in communicating with people and enrolling them.

The performance of government and its ministries and agencies must be gauged by the outcomes produced for people. All government institutions must consult with people before setting their performance targets and thereafter account to people regularly. However,when the Results Framework Document (RFD) process was first introduced in the Central government in 2009,ministries and departments mostly set targets for expenditure,internal milestones,and improvement of procedures. Therefore,an innovation has been introduced into the RFD process that requires all ministries and departments to conduct good stakeholder consultations before developing their performance indicators.

India is diverse. It must be democratic. It is likely to require coalitions to govern it. Many reforms and policies of government are presently stalled because,while some stakeholders support them,others,fearful of negative fallout,oppose. Therefore,consensus must be obtained before the reforms can proceed. The speed with which consensus will be obtained and the quality and sustainability of the consensus will determine when results will be obtained. Innovations are required in processes to obtain consensus which,in diverse,open,pluralistic India is a greater challenge than in more homogeneous societies. Information technologies can make the task of consulting easy on one hand — by providing reach to millions of people. And they make it more difficult on the other hand — by inundating the policymaker with opinions. How does one make sense of it all? Innovative solutions must be found to these challenges of communication and consensus-seeking. Insights into such processes can be obtained from our own successes and failures,as well as the experience of other democratic countries.

In conclusion,government’s innovation agenda must have an external dimension and an internal one too. Externally,government must stimulate the creation of a vibrant innovation ecosystem in which business and social entrepreneurs can flourish. Internally,democratic governments at the Centre and in the states require innovations in their own institutions and processes too,as explained here,to fulfil their core purpose of providing good government of the people,by the people,and for the people.

The writer is a member of the Planning Commission,

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