Hardbound

Complexities of Governance in a Democracy

Democracy is a work in progress and needs careful monitoring, managing, nurturing and protecting, writes entrepreneur and policy maker Sam Pitroda in his latest book The Idea of Democracy. He examines its workings globally and in India, observing distraction, distortion and derailment in democracy over the past few years

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Published a month ago on May 01, 2024 5 minutes Read
The Idea of Democracy | Author: Sam Pitroda | Published By Penguin Business | Pages 243 | Price: Rs 699

In my long professional career, I have experienced three different types of working environments and structures, each with its own set of advantages and challenges. Working as an entrepreneur, I had the freedom and flexibility to make my own decisions and assume responsibility for their consequences. Decision-making was quick and implementation simple on account of the centralized decision-making process. The potential to make a large impact, however, was limited, because of the lack of human and financial resources. Conversely, when I worked in a corporate environment, there were more people, more funds and greater opportunity to make an impact. Driven by profit motives, however, organizations focus on optimizing shareholder returns, often at the cost of other stakeholders. Corporate life also comes with many time-consuming meetings, stringent documentation and inter-departmental interactions, which often impacted the speed of execution.

Working for the government, I was exposed to an even larger canvas. Every decision that one took had an impact on millions of lives. Of course, if we were responsible for spending public resources, we also needed to be open to public scrutiny and criticism. It goes without saying that we were dealing with multiple stakeholders. Power was distributed, and responsibility was diffused.

While heading the Telecom Commission in India, for instance, I had to deal with the prime minister’s office, the Cabinet Secretariat, the departments of finance, defence, science and technology, space, education, health, rural development and urbanization, and all the state governments. In addition, there were responsibilities one had towards Parliament, the judiciary, labour, employees, customers and others. It was equally important to steer clear of vested interests from the import lobby, sales agents, foreign players, money powers, licence lobbies, multinationals and others. Similarly, while working for Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh on technology missions, knowledge commissions and initiatives related to ‘Digital India’ and innovations, one saw the impact of these initiatives on complex institutional structures. While I was focused on serving consumers and the public at large, it wasn’t hard to see that people could fall for the traps of personal profit instead of remaining committed to public service. In countries worldwide, therefore, it is not uncommon that political parties may be poor but a few politicians rich.

People in government also have a tendency to build personal power structures through various means to show their importance. In 1986, I was part of a committee that was instituted to celebrate the fortieth year of India’s Independence. To implement our plans we had hired a secretary to oversee the operations. Within two weeks we learnt that he was hiring four joint secretaries, eight directors and thirty-two administrative and support people. When I called him to question the need for so many people, he was quick to respond with, ‘How can I do my job without four key senior people reporting to me?’ He went on to add, ‘Each of my direct reports should also have enough people working for them to get recognition and respect.’ He felt that without enough people on board his job would not look important and no one would take him seriously. The focus was on ‘How would I look?’, as opposed to ‘What do I need to get done?’ with the minimum number of people and at the lowest cost. This essentially is the culture in many government organizations, especially in emerging countries. I also witnessed this when I was appointed as adviser to the prime minister of India with a rank of a cabinet minister. I was allowed to hire twenty-three people on my staff for various office-related activities. Personally, I did not see the need for more than three. Soon I realized that I was being pushed by everyone around me to hire more people, mainly to distribute favours. It made no sense to spend public money to pay salaries to people you did not need. However, the general attitude was to give jobs to people to quickly fill in as many government positions as possible and start spending. As a normal practice, governments tend to judge and reward people who spend their allocated budget. In this sense, spenders are rewarded more than savers. This is part of the reason for the huge salary budgets of government institutions. There is always dead wood buried in democracy and bureaucracy. So much so that at times it seems like the institutions are funded for the survival of employees and for disbursal of their salaries rather than for the purpose and programmes—to serve the people—for which they have been created.

From these diverse experiences, it was clear to me that working for the government in a democracy is the most complex job of all. Since governments need to work for the collective good of all the people and not for a select few, they need to have robust structures and processes in place. It takes time, energy, investment and training to learn and perfect the process to deliver the vision outlined for a democracy by the founding fathers of its constitution. To this end, current systems can benefit from digital technology and AI to monitor institutions, individuals, political parties and governments, and to evaluate the difference between the promises they make and their performance. The right to information, coupled with the availability of digital technology, to my mind, can make all the difference in a democracy. It is when these processes are not in place that people at large experience dissatisfaction with the workings of democracy. Findings from a Pew Research Center survey in not-so-distant 2019 showed that across the twenty-seven countries polled, a median of 51 per cent of the sample population was dissatisfied with how democracy was working in their country.  


 

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