Thursday, August 21, 2014

3 Simple Features that can create an impactful ‘Planning Commission’

Scrapping of the Planning Commission is an opportunity to make governance totally result-orientedThe Planning Commission of India was notified on 15 March 1950 with the belief that the function of the government was to simply utilise resources, identified through a periodic assessment, as decided in a periodic plan produced by the Commission. The notification expected that its work will “affect decisively the future welfare of the people in every sphere of national life”. It did not specify the mission of the Planning Commission, or the missions of the government that it will support, or even any mechanism to identify the impact of its actions.

By declaring the end of the Planning Commission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a huge step forward to ensure that that the government’s objective would not be just to implement five year plans. How can Mr Modi shape the body that replaces the Planning Commission? By adding what has been missing right from the beginning: result-orientation.

The Planning Commission era had independent subject divisions: Agriculture, Environment and Forests, Water Resources, Power and Energy, Industry and Minerals, Transport, Communication and Information, Village and Small Industries, Rural Development, Education, Health, Nutrition and Family Welfare, Housing & Urban Development, Social Development and Women's Programme, and Backward Classes.

These divisions worked with concerned Central Ministries, State Governments, and various non-official agencies, to study and examine various problems and issues in relation to the formulation as well as the implementation of the relevant Five Year Plan, Programmes and Policies in their respective fields. They also organised research studies, deemed necessary either on their own or through competent external institutions/organisations. Each Principal Advisor or Advisor (State Plans) helped in liaising between the Central Government and a few States/UTs. The Advisor was expected to bring out the difficulties and problems of the states to the notice of the Planning Commission and Ministries/Departments at the Centre.

While the Planning Commission moved from addressing problem-to-problem there have been no missions. The country has therefore lacked a direction for integrated development ever since the creation of the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission also lacked an integrated model of assessing the cross-impact of the activities of one Ministry on another or on the Nation and its environment. In fact, there has been no model to assess the impact of policies besides the utilisation of funds. The Government had little clarity on what it was attempting to accomplish and for whom.

If a Planning Commission-like body were to truly fill the governance deficit in India and ensure that there is minimum government, the new body should take on the mission to empower missions for each ministry. Here are the three responsibilities this would entail.

1. Develop timeless missions for the government

A mission says what we do and for whom. Without a mission, all activity is ad hoc and its beneficiaries are arbitrary. Missions focused on a current challenge remain relevant till the challenge is overcome. For example: placing a man on the moon. Missions that identify what needs to be done over multiple generations are timeless missions. In the absence of a mission, the government departments become mere procedure pushers or ad hoc problem solvers.

Without a mission, the HRD Ministry, for example, would push procedures for licensing educational institutions, push for educational institutions in one or more streams, open new or close old programs, or move into problems and issues that catch the attention of the media or various interest-groups of the time. Changes in the government would alter what the ministry does and for whom.

On the other hand, No child left behind, is a an example of a mission addressing a problem of drop-outs and exclusion but not a need of education or learning.

Peter Drucker was once called to develop a mission statement for a hospital. After spending a lot of time listening to the stakeholders and observing the hospital he helped them to articulate their mission: to provide assurance to the afflicted. Everyone from the janitor to the surgeon can identify whatever they do everyday with this timeless mission. Generation to generation the afflicted will always need to find assurance in the acts of the receptionist, janitor, nurse and doctor.

The HRD Ministry could, for example, work with the new body to develop its missions.

Here a few examples of what the HRD Ministry’s missions may look like.

Provide education to each district: This would focus the efforts of the HRD ministry to people in each district. It would seek to provide a means of education to all in the district.

Now everyone in the Ministry would ask if their proposals, projects, policies or acts will serve to provide education to each district. This may not alter the model of education but will certainly alter the access and reach of education. It will shift the focus from national education to a balance of different streams of education based on the demography of each district.

Empower teachers in every village: This would focus the audience of the HRD Ministry to teachers in every village, focusing every action of all those parts of this Ministry in empowering these teachers. Every one in the Ministry would ask if each of their proposal, policy or act will empower the teachers in every village. This will not only alter the access and reach of education but also allow alternate models of education, pedagogy and institutionalisation to emerge.

2. Help Assess the impact of different options

There are many different actions one can choose, to pursue a mission. Which one would have the maximum impact? In the absence of a means to asses the impact of the policies, projects, procedures and actions of each Ministry in furthering its mission, no Ministry will be able to course-correct its activities. Without a compass, the ship cannot be navigated. Without a thermostat the temperature in a room cannot be regulated.

Feedback information systems, or information systems where action is driven by information about the impact of the action, are absolutely essential for ensuring that actions are furthering the mission.

Take for example the conversion of natural streams in urban or rural areas into storm-water drains or gutters. Does this impact the risk of flood and drought more than letting green corridors and biodiversity to protect the community? Which one will impact in the most desirable way?

The new body can work with each ministry to develop a means to assess the impact of their actions in furthering their missions. Such models would also help the ministries to share the scenarios of alternative actions with various stakeholders and align them to actions that result in desired impact.

The HRD Ministry, for example, could use the model to assess the impact of a policy to provide each person in a district a lifetime scholarship of three months education per year on the outreach, quality or other indicators of education.

The new body would also work with each ministry to develop a means to monitor the indicators of impact resulting from the acts of the ministry in real time. This would not only allow early course correction but also an effective way to accomplish results.

3. Help evaluate the cross-impacts of different interventions

No ministry can claim to be independent of the other. If, for example, surface transportation is promoted, urbanisation and industrialisation is altered. The power requirements, the resource needs and utilisation, the environmental impact, the employment generation, the fuel imports and the foreign exchange requirements, all follow the changes made in transportation corridors.

Similarly, the promotion of a few educational institutions of national importance alters the streams students choose, the cities that concentrate educational facilities, the attractors for industry, the distribution of wealth, the infrastructure and resource requirements of the country, the environmental degradation of the country, the migratory patterns of people, and even their travel habits.

Take also, for example, the impact of building new cities or industrial corridors. How will these impact mobility, transportation, fuel imports, pollution? How will these impact the resource requirements, particularly water, food, clean air? How will this impact land use and the environment? How does this affect the resilience, stability or sustainability of the critical functions necessary for the country?

In the absence of a means to examine the impacts of the actions of a ministry on the challenges before another ministry or the country, we will only experience cancerous growth of pointless infrastructure, unnecessary projects and purposeless legislation.

The new body would need to provide the Prime Minister and his Cabinet a model that would allow them to explore scenarios for simultaneous implementation of the different policies of different ministries, on indicators they propose to track. Such an exploration would not only ensure that policies work for the better of the country and impact various sectors in ways that further the missions they undertake, and also that the Cabinet works as a team to develop the country.

The new body would ideally have two main divisions: one for mission division and one for impact. The mission division would support the ministries in developing and executing their missions. The impact division would support the government in assessing the impact of programmes and the cross impacts of programmes. A 5-member board chaired by the Prime Minister would oversee the mission formulation and their impact.

The scrapping of the Planning Commission is the first step in the right direction, to ushering in good governance. It is an opportunity to bring a focus to what is done and for whom, by each government ministry and its departments. It is an opportunity to assess the impact of alternative actions of each ministry before listing desirable actions. It is an opportunity to ensure that the actions of one ministry do not compromise India’s potential for change, resilience, stability and sustainability.

It is an opportunity to undertake best practices and not merely emulate a current good practice that comes from a part of the world with a different context, different culture or a government with a different mission. It is an opportunity to put in place a mechanism that will transform the way the government works, to not only ensure minimum government but also ensure enduring good governance.

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