Friday, September 5, 2014

Hard Changes for Better Times

It's time to work together for what we need.

As the government settles in amid signs that the economy's edging up, in approach would help us fare very much better. Our needs haven't changed: the assumption of law and order as a prerequisite, with a great deal more of basic infrastructure in the form of energy,and sanitation, transport, communications, and basic health and education services. Beyond these, there are the second-order infrastructure needs of healthcare, education, and financial systems and services. Together, these can facilitate productive and more comfortable living, making every day less of a battle.

However, merely wanting all these is not sufficient, as we know from experience. Good intentions aren't enough to solve problems, nor are public consultations. There are many mountains to be climbed, from individual aspects of discipline, education/skill development, and diligent application, to the collective aspects of organisation, collaboration, applied expertise across many domains, and access to reasonably priced capital. These are where institutional changes addressed seriously can help achieve our priority objectives.

What Must Change?

Attitudes: Contention vs. Solutions  A major weakness in our approach is the high level of dissonance in our society. Is it because of our unwillingness to accept that there's more to know than any one of us does, as individuals? We also seem to operate contentiously, rather than working out solutions that are acceptable to others as much as to ourselves. It's difficult to explain this unwillingness to consider with an open mind, or to accept our limitations. It's almost as though our without obligations extend to a tendency to hold opinions without the basis of supporting evidence, domain knowledge, or understanding. This is perhaps why all the good people and good works don't seem to add up - and, despite the many isolated, encapsulated efforts, our disjointed, uncoordinated society seems to border on chaos.

One part of the remedy requires changing our attitudes to the process of engagement itself, from contending against to actively seeking solutions among stakeholders, i.e., seeking resolution. We need to seek solutions and to resolve conflicts and trade-offs, which often have to be eclectic, and usually beyond any individual's capacity, and not to merely demolish other people's ideas. Above all, the effort has to be collaborative and not factional. A tall order, but perhaps worth pursuing.

(SOPs)  Another essential aspect of the remedy is adopting a systems approach with of due process followed as a protocol, like an algorithm, a problem-solving routine with a set sequence.

Discipline  A necessary adjunct is discipline as part of the process. This includes educating ourselves to the point of pursuing professionalism and developing respect for it, and for others' professionalism. For instance, suggestions of ideas to be implemented often evoke dismissive comments on why they won't work, or that other countries' experiences are irrelevant. We certainly have to script our own story, but we can definitely learn from others, just as we do in the arts, humanities or sciences. It doesn't matter whether it's from China or Germany, or Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, America, or the Scandinavian countries, or in formulating policies to encourage automobile manufacturing or mass transport, or in using coal or nuclear energy. These principles need to become habits of a collaborative problem-solving approach, of goal-oriented, disciplined SOPs that make for good project management. They are cradle-to-grave practices, to be worked into curricula and nurtured through school and beyond, in adult education.

Sequencing  There is sometimes confusion about the sequence in pursuing changes in policies and regulations. It's logical that objectives in the should shape policies, and these in turn should drive the processes of legislation, rules, regulations, and procedures in that order, with no ambiguity.

Weak Implementation  Our greatest weakness, of course, is in not implementing even reasonable laws and regulations. Going forward, however, this needs to change, and regulations need to be enforced despite the difficulties.

Public-Interest Objectives  The supremacy of objectives in the public interest seems unexceptionable, but if we consider issues like spectrum management, broadband policy, fuel pricing, or urban development, it's not obvious what the objectives are, or how public interest is served in the shaping of policies in these areas. Attempts to provide genuinely beneficial outcomes will be revolutionary in scope and scale.

The Government's Role

There are opposing ideas based on free-market or statist philosophies of whether markets should drive evolution in policies, or if governments should do so. In reality, free-market bastions have resorted to more intervention, as in the Strategy for American Innovation1 premised on building leading physical infrastructure and an advanced IT ecosystem, or the UK's broadband policies. Meanwhile, statists have moved to introduce more market-driven considerations. In India's case, we need to follow methods that serve the public interest without ambiguity, although establishing what that is may be a non-trivial exercise.

Government is certainly an important stakeholder and the ultimate arbiter of policies. More importantly, it can and must provide the leadership and sustained impetus in organising and coordinating stakeholder consultations to define objectives and facilitate convergence based on public-interest considerations. The private sector cannot ordinarily do this on a sustained basis even where markets are well developed. Even in such environments, it is arguably not the best course in the public interest. Because of our colonial legacy, a change in government attitudes to act as a co-participant will be difficult to effect, although it will be of tremendous consequence.

Experienced facilitators can help in converging interdisciplinary consultations to arrive at pragmatic decisions. Such expertise could greatly improve government consultations with other stakeholders. Equally, technical, financial, organisational, and administrative expertise and inputs are required to formulate practicable, viable solutions.

Initiatives such as the Planning Commission's India Backbone Implementation Network2 appear to have begun well, although some links on the web site are not maintained. Case studies on ecotourism3 and a garment manufacturing cluster4, among others, appear promising. Such initiatives need strong, sustained government support to not fall away as yet another "scheme" that has ended in isolation.

Shyam nospace Ponappa at gmail dot com
1: StrategyforAmericanInnovation;