Saturday, April 12, 2014

Leadership of State agencies in India requires engineers and not drivers

I recently wrote a column in the Economic Times titled Engineers, not drivers, about the problems of malfunctioning government agencies in India and the problem of constructing State capacity. 


  1. Isomorphic mimicry - delicious indeed.
    Reminds one of the similar phrase: "cargo cult".

    Cargo Cult Science

    "In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land."

  2. I've made a bet with a friend that if Ajay Shah wrote a review of the movie Ragini MMS 2, it would end with a reference to the Indian Financial Code.

    1. But see my last ET article -- -- there is no IFC there! :)

  3. Some of this sounded like xenophobia / envy. Is this a pitch for local talent as opposed to outside-India experts?

    I think as a general principle, what you are advocating is wrong. Besides I sense a conflict of interest?

    The virtues of local / insider experience are overrated.

  4. It is a pitch for engineers and not drivers.

    1. Could you elaborate on those terms?

    2. The ET article is all about that :)

      Driver: "Now that I head the FDA, I will bring a fresh focus upon the terrible problem of adulterated milk in India".

      Engineer: "Now that I head the FDA, I will reorganise it, write new process manuals, and reskill the team, so as to make the FDA more effective, and use that to pursue priorities such as adulterated milk".

    3. I think you trivialize the role of FDA heads in developed nations by labeling their contribution as mere drivers. They too are solving complex problems, merely the focus differs.

      I've no argument against most of your article: Yes the Indian FDA is broken, employees are incompetent yada yada. Agreed.

      Your statement that annoyed me was this one: "when you pluck a skilled person from the US and discuss public policy in India, that skilled person is comprehensively useless."

      Also annoying was this bit: "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."

      These seem overly broad and ham fisted generalizations which seem really hard to justify. I've personally known many Western policy practitioners that understood the subtleties you mention way better than most domestic policy makers I knew. Do you really have to denigrate Western policymakers as a class to make your point?

      The "outsider" is not always the idiot. :)

    4. Let's agree to disagree on that one, then. :) All too often, I have seen gross gaps in perspective. The practice of the West is grounded in an incredibly complex web of incentives, I have generally found that the attempts at adaptation and transplantation are superficial. I say this as a great admirer of those institutions. We should go there -- but the journey requires engineers and not drivers.

    5. Ok. Agree to disagree. :)

      To be fair, there is a gap in perspective, but often for better not worse. e.g. They can be immune from prejudices to caste, region, institution etc.They are insulated from petty political factions especially if it is a fixed term appointment. etc.

      PS. Can you support your assertion regarding the uselessness of western policymakers with any specific examples?

    6. To put it differently, yes the journey needs engineers but the west perhaps makes better or at least as good a engineer as we do. :)

    7. The engineering of the public policy process in the West is awesome! The trouble is, so much of it was done decades ago that persons who appear on the scene today do not even appreciate all the pieces that are working. There are many moving parts and almost all policy practitioners are not aware of the pieces that are making it all work.

      I am not saying we have engineers ready to roll here in India. We do not. I am saying we must bring the mindset of an engineer. When I see a new leader at an Indian institution, what I am looking for is not movement on policy. I am looking for changing the organisation chart, the HR process, the process manuals, the rule of law. These are the things that matter.

      I am saying that the style of policy leadership that is found at senior levels amongst policy practitioners in the West is highly inappropriate when transplanted here. If you think the machine works and you think about how you will turn the steering wheel, you are not appropriate for leadership roles in India.

      A prominent example of the problems of transplantation is in the field of health. Western practitioners have dominated the WHO and almost everything that's said about health policy in India by these two groups has proved to be a mistake.

    8. I see what you are saying (I think). But you are comparing an extant, admittedly flawed, imperfect western practitioner versus a hypothetical ideal domestic candidate for the Indian situation. Not apples for apples :)

      My opinion is judge a candidate on his merits: don't be biased against a western candidate nor against a domestic one.

      Maybe you disagree, but there's a surprising amount of this "changing the organisation chart, the HR process, the process manuals" going on in the Western institutions too. If you think Western policymakers as only capable of working with well oiled machines I think you are sadly wrong.

    9. My problem is with the clarity and confidence of the Western practitioner. He knows the US FDA works well. He is excessively prescriptive in transplanting practices and is too quick to jump to policy objectives without worrying adequately that the foundations are rotten.

      There is an ample amount of mechanical engineering research going on at Toyota, which makes cars that basically work. The situation in the Indian State is truly bad.

  5. I don't know if its just about engineer mindset. I've seen private sector people complain about govt processes in the West too. A private sector leader often isn't effective when he/she moves to govt in the West and it just might be a matter of different skills. So, maybe there is another angle to it. The idea of technocrats in govt has been shown to be flawed by people like Manmohan Singh. I think the most important quality is for someone to have political capital and be willing to push the right policies while risking that capital. Someone has to take on the dysfunctional bureaucracy, trade unions, agricultural lobbies, etc. In the Congress, MMS was the technocrat but without any political capital, which resided with the Gandhis, who were uninterested in using that political capital to campaign for any policy reforms. It was a great way for the Gandhis to almost dissociate themselves from the responsibility of governance. While just being a technocrat was no use for MMS. In contrast, during Narasimha Rao's tenure, he was willing to use his political capital with the tech abilities of MMS.

    1. I'm not sure. Is there incontrovertible evidence that the Narshimha Rao era was much better than the Manmohan Singh prime ministership? Why? By what metrics?

      Also, being willing to push the right policies assumes one can judge which ones are the right policies and that in itself might imply needing some amount of technocrat flair.

    2. I feel the binding constraint today is not political economy as in (say) the vested interests that like the present fertiliser subsidy.

      There is full clarity that the Indian State should run the judiciary, the police, a central bank, etc. There is no difficulty on the mandate here. The challenge is to make these institutions work.

      I feel that malfunctioning State institutions generate peculiar political economy problems. E.g. when the criminal justice system does not work well, citizens get biases in how they vote - voters feel safer if their kith and kin are running the place.

    3. While the mandate on the surface goal is clear, the logjam still seems to be at the level of reforms and political vision rather than engineering capabilities (while not denying its major importance, as you have outlined in other articles like the one on criminal justice, etc).

      I guess its a matter of the zoom on your lens. When looking at the working elements of a state institution, engineering is perhaps the key element. But, when you zoom out, we see that the political leaders or the institution leaders have not digested the idea that discretionary power has to go away, or that rent seeking behavior has to dissipate, that state employees/lawyers are not stakeholders, that long term investments have to be made, that individual liberty is sacrosanct when framing solutions, the importance of free markets, etc.

      Quite likely that its not that bad. But, if it is true that the big picture needs fixing along those dimensions (even for state institutions with clear mandates) then I feel that engineering comes secondary in importance. Most of those are still political challenges, not merely in taking upon vested interests, but in articulating a vision of what kind of state is to be provided to the citizen.


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