FPJ Analysis: Can Government Deliver Better?

FPJ Analysis: Can Government Deliver Better?

ISRO’s success shows that government agencies can do a lot better. We must redesign institutions, alter incentives, and align power with purpose, and authority with accountability. Let ISRO not be an exception.

Dr Jayaprakash NarayanUpdated: Sunday, August 27, 2023, 09:02 PM IST
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All of India erupted with joy and celebration on the evening of August 23. It was a special moment when the Indian lunar lander Vikram soft-landed on the South Pole of the moon, followed by the rover Pragya safely roaming on the lunar surface conducting experiments and taking pictures. It is indeed a wonderful achievement for ISRO and India. Even a quarter century ago it would have been hard to imagine that India would be the first in the world in any feat related to space. Now India is the first to land on the South Pole of the moon, and only the fourth to ever land a space vehicle safely on the moon. ISRO made every Indian feel inches taller.

We hold our heads high with confidence and pride. The failure of Chandrayaan-2 did not deter ISRO; in fact the lessons of that failure were important in paving the way for the success of Chandrayaan-3. There is no failure in science; we only learn how not to do a thing, and do things better. ISRO s accomplishment is even more remarkable because we spend very little on space programmes. Chandrayaan-3 cost us only $75 million, or Rs 600 crore, about 10-20% of the costs incurred by other countries for similar projects. In fact ever since India founded ISRO in 1969, we only spent about $18 billion, whereas the US space agency NASA s budget in 2023 alone is $25.4 billion.

A question arises: if ISRO can do so well, why don’t other government agencies and departments perform better? All of us experience apathy, failure of delivery, abuse of power and corruption in most government services. What sets ISRO apart? Can we improve government functioning across the board?

ISRO operates on the model of executive agency, an expression coined decades later. In the executive agency model, the government chooses a chief executive, sets clearly defined, deliverable goals, allocates adequate resources and monitors the outcomes. Otherwise, the agency has total operational autonomy; its internal organisational structure and working are flexible and entirely decided by the organisation. In uncertain fields like research, science and technology, only broad goals are set. Such organisations are normally non-hierarchical. Tasks and teams rather than obedience to bosses become the norm. Outcomes are given greater emphasis than processes. Operational flexibility is the guiding principle, instead of rigid, inflexible rules and procedures.

Wherever such a model is put in place, it usually produces excellent results. Other examples of executive agency model in operation in India include BARC, the postal department, Airport Authority and the Railways. In case of postal and railways, government intervenes excessively in placement of officials and fixing of tariffs. However, since there is operational autonomy with clear definition of outcomes, they perform satisfactorily.

The performance in most government departments and agencies is generally unsatisfactory. This is particularly true at the level of service delivery to citizens. Government bureaucracy is hierarchical, rigid, insensitive to the needs of situation wedded to its own procedures, and generally unconcerned with outcomes and delivery of services. This rigid, hierarchical culture has also crept into many scientific establishments and universities. About four decades ago, our agricultural universities did excellent research and created new technologies relevant to farmers. Increasingly, with perfunctory research in agri universities, farmers have to depend on private global corporates for seeds and other technologies.

In routine administration we see sloth, insensitivity, insolence and ubiquitous extortion of money from hapless citizens. Our education and healthcare delivery is deeply unsatisfactory. Most often power and purpose are delinked. Those who have the duty to deliver have no authority, and those with power have no accountability. But in limited situations regarded as critical, we alter the framework, and suddenly those moribund organisations come to life and their performance improves quite dramatically. Conduct of elections, disaster management, crowd control and VIP visits are examples of the other-wise discredited administration performing creditably. In such select situations, the way the organisation functions is altered. These tasks are regarded as critical and time-sensitive, and the bureaucracy has to function under the critical gaze and scrutiny of the general public, media and elected politicians. In all these situations, the simple operating principle of authority fusing with accountability is put into practice. The speedy and efficient execution of national highways is one such example.

All these examples show that we can greatly improve delivery in government. Market competition and consumer choice ensure quality service and affordable prices in respect of most goods and services. In those areas government should not interfere, except creating a level playing field and protecting the consumer and the environment. But there are core areas where market competition is not possible, natural monopolies exist, and public need is not converted into market demand. In these areas of rule of law, basic infrastructure, public amenities, school education and healthcare, government has a vital role. Some of these functions can be performed by the market; but the government has to create the framework, and often provide the resources even if the services are delivered by private sector.

ISRO’s success shows that government agencies can do a lot better. We must redesign institutions, alter incentives, and align power with purpose, and authority with accountability. Let ISRO not be an exception; let us strive to make every public institution deliver.

(The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: drjploksatta@gmail.com / Twitter@jp_loksatta)

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