Friday, 15 January 2016

Interview - S.V. Ranganath

Public Policy: An Indian Perspective

S.V. Ranganath, IAS (Retd.)
Former Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka and Board Member, CSTEP

What is Public Policy?

Policy making may be defined as “the process by which governments translate their vision into programmes and actions that deliver outcomes (desired changes) in the real world.”  It is presumed that governments act as a perfectly rational individual who always chooses the best options available in framing any policy. However, this is not so in the real world.  In practice not all the options available are analysed or explored.  An incremental approach is adopted in framing policy changes. According to Herbert Simon, everyone is governed by “bounded rationality” which implies that none can gather all information and process it perfectly to arrive at a rational decision.

How is Public Policy formulated?

In India there is a national or federal government and also governments at the state level and the distribution of powers between the federal government and the states is clearly enunciated in the constitution.  Both at the federal and the state levels, public policy is laid down by the political government i.e. the parliament or the legislature as the case may be. The political arm of the government consists of Prime Minister/Chief Minister and Members of the Council of Ministers. The laws passed by the Parliament or the State Legislature provide the frame work for detailed policy making by the executive. In practice, it is the job of the Secretary to Government to initiate policy making and to explore the various options available and the final decision is taken by the Minister or the Cabinet.  Each department of government is responsible for formulating the sector policy but it cannot take an independent decision.  The existing Rules of Business require a consultative process to be followed before a final decision is evolved.  Matters having financial implication need the finance department’s concurrence; legal issues needs the opinion and approval of law department. The formulation of any major policy involves eliciting the views of various departments connected with the implementation of that particular policy. Thereafter, the matter is sent to the Cabinet where different positions are reconciled and the policy is approved with such modifications as deemed necessary.

Although subjects within the domain of the central and state governments are clearly specified in the constitution, the central government formulates policies on subjects in the concurrent list.  The National Health Policy and the National Housing policy are two examples of this phenomenon. Several important central sector schemes where large amount of money are allocated under schemes like MNREGA, JnNurm and National Rural Health Mission, are implemented by State Governments. Therefore even though the policies of these sectors are framed by the Central government, the implementation depends upon the involvement and dedication of the state machinery. This has a powerful impact on the success of such policies.

There are several other stake holders who are involved both directly and indirectly before a certain policy emerges.  Interested groups, lobbies or individuals exert influence on the policy makers both at the political and bureaucratic level and their views play a part in shaping policy.  Such pressure group could include farmers’ organisations, industries and trade associations, teacher associations and certain sections of the civil society.

The judiciary has been playing an important role in policy making. A large number of legislations need interpretation by the courts.  The courts have also intervened in actual implementation of the policies and issued directions to the executive government.  The recent examples of judicial intervention in policy implementation pertain to regulating mining activities in Karnataka and distribution of 2G spectrum.  In the 2G cases, the Supreme Court observed “under the Constitution, judicial review is one of its basic features and in exercise of such judicial review, the court can certainly scrutinize and even strike down policy decisions of the executive when such decisions are unconstitutional.”  In another case, the Supreme Court noted: “Judges must know their limits and must not try to run the government”.  Judicial intervention in policy making is not peculiar to India and is common to all democratic countries where the courts have sought to intervene where public interest is involved.

What are the challenges faced by policy makers?

Most Government policies and programmes which appear well conceived, logical and appropriate fall far short of expectation of policy makers at the implementation level.  The reasons for the sub-par implementation of government policies and programmes can be categorised into four broad categories.

Poor inter-departmental coordination:  In Government, the Rules of Business Allocation specifies the allocation of various subjects to the relevant government departments.  These allocations are based on the government’s perception of the management needs, and generally work very well.  However, most real life issues involve problems that cut across the jurisdiction of many departments and herein lies the rub.  For example, a programme on nutrition will involve four departments of government viz. Department of Health and Family Welfare, Department of Women and Child Development, Department of Education (Mid-Day Meals) and Department of Food.  Most of the subjects that touch the life of a common man would fall within the purview of three or four departments of government.  Sadly, the levels of coordination among the departments are poor; most departments assiduously guard their turf, without giving adequate thought to the needs of quality programme implementation.  This is the fundamental reason why many government programmes fail at the implementation level.  Therefore, the lacuna of inadequate attention to issues of departmental coordination and dedicated “turf guarding” by the relevant department needs to be addressed without further ado.

Insufficient attention given to capacity building: The responsibility for implementation of the policies and programmes pertaining to welfare of the common man rests almost entirely with the State Governments.  Efficient time-lines, initiatives, innovation, dedication, integrity and result orientation are the essential features of the management structure of any competent implementation unit.  In addition, the ability to take calculated risks, to instill team spirit and ensure that the members of the team give their best are the characteristics of any successful project manager.  All public servants involved in implementing public policy need to have these qualities in ample measure.

However, an additional dimension of openness, transparency, addiction to the principles of natural justice and above all compassion are essential ingredients of a successful public administrator. It addition, it is necessary to create an environment where public servants are encouraged to take risks.  The present environment, not only does not reward risk takers, but also seeks to penalise them.  Not all the member of teams involved in implementing policies and programmes have got all these qualities.  This is one of the important reasons for poor implementation of well conceived policies. It is necessary that the capacity building of those involved in implementation of public policy is taken up in right earnest.

Archaic systems and procedures: Most of the systems and procedures prevalent in public administration in colonial India have been continued from the time of independence. The intention of the colonial government was to ensure that public administration was an instrument of control and command.  Today, the priorities have undergone a sea of changes and the intent of the government is to connect with the people.  Most of the procedures which are in vogue today are not citizen friendly; every citizen has to repeatedly visit the government offices to get what is their legitimate right.  These archaic procedures lead to delay, frustration and is often accompanied by whispers of corruption.  There is an immediate need to review and radically modify the existing procedures to make it more transparent and citizen friendly.  It is also necessary to make use of technology in a big way to make the existing procedures more open and citizen friendly.

Judicial intervention: Most policies involve capturing the intention of the Government into an appropriate legislation.  A poorly drafted legislation leads to giving discretion to the implementing authority apart from endless litigation in courts of law.  Since courts have been quite active in intervention of cases where there is a violation of provisions of the constitution and other relevant laws, the framing of Acts and Rules by the legislature as well as by the bureaucracy needs much closer attention than what it is receiving today.

How can Think Tanks help policy making?

Most of the policy makers in the government are rushed for time. A policy maker needs inputs, which are multi-disciplinary in character.  Apart  from in depth domain knowledge, a policy maker needs to have more than a fleeting acquaintance with public administration, modern management, economic theory, behavioural economics, law, political science, psychology and sociology apart from the technological options available.  A Think tank is best suited to give these multi-disciplinary inputs, which the policy makers are craving for. At present this expertise does not exist in any department of government and this is one of the main areas where government interaction with Think Tanks will contribute decisively to improved policy making.

As mentioned earlier, policy makers, normally, do not consider all the options available while framing policy, thanks to the limitation of “bounded rationality”. A Think Tank can give more options to the policy maker to explore and this should assist the policy maker considerably.  Most of the welfare programmes could be implemented much better if an evaluation is done by a competent Think Tank who could identify the bottle necks and road blocks and suggest appropriate modifications. As of now, evaluation of programmes depends on data collected through questionnaires.  It would help if a Think Tank is asked to evaluate major policies and programmes of government through “action research”.

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