Engineers, not drivers

Economic Times, 10 April 2014

In first world countries, government institutions broadly work. When a new leader of an institution comes along, he is the driver of a car - he focuses on where he wants to go, and can assume that the car moves forward and responds to the turn of the steering wheel. In India, government institutions are the car that does not move, where turning the steering wheel is ineffective. To do public policy in India, the skill required is that of an engineer and not the driver. It is about opening the hood, understanding what is wrong with the institution, and fixing it.

As an example, consider the US Food and Drug Administration. This is an agency which embeds a hundred years of effort on setting up good laws, building a sound organisation structure, developing sound processes, and establishing a skilled work force. There is extensive jurisprudence in place which shapes the private sector, the employees of the agency and the judges in future cases. The courts work well. Why does an FDA employee wake up in the morning and (largely speaking) do good work every day? There is a complex web of incentives and accountability that keeps the whole thing ticking correctly.

The US FDA is a machine that is working. When a new leader comes along, he has the luxury of taking the wheel of a machine that basically works. He has the luxury of thinking about where he wants to go, in the space of policy.

In contrast, agencies in India are broken. The laws are faulty, the organisation charts are wrong, internal processes are defined badly or often undefined. The courts work poorly. Employees of the agency are suffused with ignorance, laziness and corruption: they do not wake up in the morning and do good work every day.

In Lant Pritchett's delicious phrase, the Indian FDA is engaged in `isomorphic mimicry' where it vaguely looks like an FDA from the outside, and tries to derive legitimacy and prestige out of the role and success of FDA-like agencies worldwide. But while the imposing building in India vaguely looks like an FDA from the outside, it is empty inside. There is no capability there.

When a new leader comes along, he does not have the luxury of taking the wheel on top of an organisation that basically works. He cannot afford to be a driver and envision destinations: he has to be an engineer and fix the car.

The task in India is that of building State capacity, of making the car work. To be useful in Indian public policy, the leadership of an agency has to start at the laws, figure out objectives - powers - accountability, come up with a new organisation diagram, write new process manuals, and recruit and reskill the staff so that they are able to work within those process manuals. This is the work of an engineer and not a driver. The leadership team that thinks of government in this fashion is being useful. When the leadership tries to act like a driver, operating the steering wheel while leaving the machine intact, it will be ineffective (as the car does not work). Five years would go by and nothing would get better.

All too often, when you pluck a skilled person from the US and discuss public policy in India, that skilled person is comprehensively useless. That skilled person is the New York taxi driver, who knows how to drive a car, but has zero understanding about how a car works. Policy practitioners in the West take the reins of a machine which has been perfected over decades. They do not understand the subtleties of law, incentives, accountability, organisation structure, process engineering, and public administration which makes those machines work soundly.

In India, we now need a new wave of intricate engineering in order to achieve cars that work. For every arm of government, we have to clarify objectives -- getting government away from random meddling to narrowly addressing market failures. We need to precisely define the powers of government, to get away from the abuses of sweeping powers. We need to envelop government in an array of accountability mechanisms, so that functionaries serve the people of India instead of wallowing in laziness, corruption and ignorance. We need to figure out organisation diagrams, write new process manuals and do recruitment and reskilling. This construction of State capacity has begun in one field -- finance -- with the Indian Financial Code.

For a potential leader to matter in India, there must be a focus on the hard work of going under the hood and doing engineering, and not the fun stuff of driving. There are a few areas in India where stroke-of-the-pen reforms can do decontrol and make things better. But in most cases, the problems consist of creating State capacity: of engineering and not driving.

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