The talent problemhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-talent-problem/

The talent problem

Our municipal corporations suffer from a lack of expertise

A 2009 study on JNNURM cities found that 97 per cent of the municipal staff were grade C and D employees. Only 1 per cent were grade A employees. (Reuters)
A 2009 study on JNNURM cities found that 97 per cent of the municipal staff were grade C and D employees. Only 1 per cent were grade A employees. (Reuters)

Indian cities are confronting a serious human resource management crisis. Municipal corporations suffer from significant shortfalls in skilled manpower, which prevents them from delivering high-quality infrastructure and services to citizens. In the last few years, the talent problem has emerged as the elephant in the room, as cities undertake large infrastructure projects that are not always accompanied by visible outcomes. This is compounded by the fact that over the next two decades, an investment of nearly one trillion dollars is required to meet urban infrastructure and service demand.

The talent problem in our municipal corporations is manifested in three related ways. First, there is an inadequate number of employees, compared to the population and service obligations. Second, the skills and competencies of employees are not commensurate with their responsibilities and the complexity of urban service delivery. Finally, an anachronistic organisation design and structure severely limits its effectiveness and performance.

The proposition that our cities are not serviced by enough employees goes against the popular perception that government bodies in India are always overstaffed. The question here is not of staffing levels in government in general, but specifically of staffing in the urban sector. Municipal corporations in India are understaffed at two levels. First, the number of approved posts is inadequate. Second, the actual number of staff employed is much lower because of vacancies. In 2013-14, the municipal corporation in Bangalore had only 10,000 employees, against a sanctioned strength of 19,000. An independent workforce-planning exercise, carried out by Aon Hewitt and Janaagraha, set the required number of staff at a conservative 27,000, indicating a 63 per cent shortfall. Data collected as part of Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems suggests that most Indian cities have very low staff to population ratios. Delhi and Mumbai have between 900 and 1,300 staff for every 1,00,000 citizens, whereas the other 18 cities that were evaluated had between 86 and 810. In comparison, Durban in South Africa has 3,000 employees for every 1,00,000 citizens. New York and London, with 5,000 and 3,000 employees for 1,00,000 citizens, also appear to be adequately staffed, even though they have a wider range of responsibilities.

The issue of skills and competencies of the staff poses an even greater challenge. Urban service delivery and infrastructure are complex to plan and execute. They require high degrees of specialisation and professionalism. The current framework within which municipal employees, including senior management, are recruited does not adequately factor in the technical and managerial competencies required. Cadre and recruitment rules or equivalent policies only specify the bare minimum in academic qualifications. For example, in Bangalore, the only prerequisite for a deputy commissioner, which is a high-level position, is that he be a senior officer from the IAS or the state municipal administrative service. There is no mention of managerial or technical competencies, or of relevant work experience. This is the case with most municipal corporations. As a result, not only do they lack the capabilities required, but the existing talent is often not located in the right jobs. For example, the chief accounts officer could have a masters in sociology, with no formal training in finance and accounting.

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It is not an exaggeration to say that the lack of appropriate competencies among municipal officials is directly linked to the poor quality of roads, recurrent flooding during monsoons, garbage on the streets, poor property tax collections, the inability to raise higher revenues and a whole gamut of inefficiences that affect our quality of life on a daily basis.

The third facet of the talent problem is weak organisation design and structure. This is a fundamental and systemic issue in human resource management that exacerbates the first two problems. A 2009 study on JNNURM cities found that 97 per cent of the municipal staff were grade C and D employees. Only 1 per cent were grade A employees. So it is not surprising that highly competent municipal commissioners or joint commissioners are reduced to firefighting on operational issues, simply because they are not supported by competent teams. To further complicate matters, critical “horizontal” operations such as human resources, information technology, finance, strategic planning and performance management are either non-existent or staffed marginally. How can organisations with staff counts running into several thousands function without robust human resource or performance management?

There is a strong case, therefore, for the new government to drive synergies between two of its focus areas: skills and cities. An adequate number of appropriately skilled municipal staff is a prerequisite for a better quality of life in our cities. The smarter cities will be those that identify this challenge sooner rather than later.

Co-authored by Ekta Poddar.

Viswanathan is coordinator, advocacy, research and capacity building, at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, Bangalore.

Poddar is senior consultant, talent and performance, at Aon Hewitt

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