Monday, August 25, 2008

Public Policy Making in India

“Here is the policy decision – now find the data that supports it, and implement the scheme!” – This, in a nutshell, summarizes the attitude and approach of many policy-makers in India.

When we make a habit out of putting the cart before the horse, the outcomes are rather predictable – grand decisions that get needlessly mired in controversies; a demoralized bureaucracy; waste of precious time and lots of money down the drain.

Remember the VAT rollout, Conditional Access System fiasco, Fiscal Responsibility Bill, Parliamentary Reservation for Women, Telecom Inter-connectivity Charges, etc., Why do we keep repeating our mistakes? Does it come from the lack of introspection? Not quite – there are many of scholarly documents that pinpoint critical problem areas.

Take, for instance, the paper published by O.P. Agarwal & T.V. Somanathan – “Public Policy Making in India: Issues &Remedies”. Here is what it says about the process of policy-making in India –

“The process ought to produce a high-quality decision, made with a high degree of legitimacy, power and accuracy. Essential features of this process –

  1. Knowledge – up-to-date & relevant data processed with the right analytical tools, to create reliable subject-matter knowledge
  2. Awareness of Inter-Sectoral Impact – analysis of trade-offs, using analytical tools – policy analysis, program evaluation, cost-benefit analysis. Eg. transport policy impacts petrol consumption and the environment, environment policy (pollution norms) affects industrial development
  3. Assessment of winners and losers – crucial in a democratic set-up
  4. Legal authority - Legitimacy - procedural & substantive
  5. Execution – swift and successful
  6. Leadership – coordination, synthesis, integration, unbiased”

Agarwal & Somanathan also point out that in reality, policy decisions are often made without adequate analysis of costs, benefits, trade-offs and consequences. According to them, the underlying causes for this are -

  • Excessive fragmentation – too many ministries and departments, leading to widespread prevalence of the ‘blind men and the elephant’ syndrome;
  • Inadequate time spent on policy-making – excessive overlap of policy-making and implementation; over-centralization of implementation authority;
  • Inadequate professionalism of policy-makers and advisers;
  • Inadequate consultation of in-house specialists – ‘generalist arrogance’ (IAS cadre?), inter-service rivalries;
  • Mediocrity of in-house specialists – worsened by excessive dependence on ‘outside specialists’.

Ultimately everything seems to boil down to leadership. Is this the biggest challenge in our political milieu that encourages weak & pliable officers over those who are perceived to be strong & honest?

References / Links:

* Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
* Public Policy Making in India: Issues and Remedies - O.P. Agarwal & T.V. Somanathan (2005)
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