Quarterly Journal on Management
From the publishers of THE HINDU BUSINESS LINE
Vol. 2 :: No. 1 :: March 1998
The work habits and the mindset of bureaucracy have been a source of tension at its interface with specialist and technical establishments on the one hand and business and industry on the other. The possible scenarios here are: The specialist and technical establishments comprising functionaries generally called technocrats may themselves be integral parts of a larger bureaucracy or they may be separate organisations having dealings with, or working under the direction of, government bureaucracy. The personnel of some of the latter, much like many government departments, may be a mix of generalists and specialists. Matters are complicated when the generalists occupy positions of control and supervision. Within the bureaucracy itself, discordance may arise among various grades and categories of functionaries and detract from their ability to pull together in a synergetic and synchronous manner.
The age-old rationale for the importance given to a generalist- bureaucrat and his interposition between the technocrat and the political master had as its basis four main considerations:
(1) The technocrat should be left undisturbed to focus on his technical tasks without having to make compromises under pressure which he may not be in a position to withstand.
(2) The generalist would be better able, with his broader vision and perhaps his capacity for jargon-free exposition, to place before political masters in the language they understand the technical inputs for policy formulation provided by the professionals.
(3) The accountability of the Ministers to legislatures and the public made it necessary for them to give a convincing and persuasive explanation of their policies and the generalist by his upbringing and training was in a position to provide the required assistance.
(4) At the higher echelons it was not so much technical knowledge that mattered but leadership, managerial capabilities, a holistic approach and sound judgment to issues and problems. In fact, at high levels, excessive specialisation could even be a handicap.
These arguments have lost much of their force in the era of knowledge explosion and information technology. With universal emphasis on personality development and skills enrichment, specialists too have acquired competence to be policy advisers, and in that capacity, their professional background actually confers on them a distinct advantage. This is borne out by many doctors, engineers and others from similar specialist fields entering organised generalist services such as the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Revenue Service etc. who are contributing to the enhanced quality of public administration.
In addition to all these changes in workplaces, increasingly, these days there has been a shift from the vertical to flat organisations, that is, from individualised positions dictated by hierarchies to multidisciplinary teams in which all are equal. In the circumstances, the relevant criterion is not whether one is a generalist or a specialist but whether he is the best person for the job. In appointing CEOs to big corporations in the industrialised countries, for instance, the net is cast wide without any preconceptions coming in the way of the right choice.
All these developments point to the emergence of a new driving force leading to achievements marked by creativity and innovation and without draining away energies in conflicts and tensions: This new thrust is towards building partnerships without thought of rank, grade or status and working with the sole aim of delivering the goods of assured quality within the targeted time.
The same principle underlies business-bureaucracy linkages as well. Once they learn to relate themselves to each other making allowances for each other's strengths and weaknesses, and once procedures and processes are made transparent and equitable, business can concentrate on its schemes and projects, without having to influence decisions through lobbies and pressure groups. Sometimes the lobbies are curiously built into the system in a thoroughly respectable manner as, for example, in Britain where at least three Prime Minister were from pro-business families and a significant proportion of MPs were either businessmen themselves or held directorships of business concerns, or had personal, financial or family connections with business.
In India too, business had found a voice right in the sanctum sanctorum with the inclusion of former businesspersons such as John Mathai, R.K.Shanmugam Chetty, T.T.Krishnamachari and Manubhai Shah in the Council of Ministers. At another level, business executives such as Wadud Khan and Rajadhyaksha became part of the bureaucratic power structure. Nor should one forget the fact that business pervades the entire electoral process through substantial contributions to parties as well as to individual candidates, and this gives it considerable leverage over bureaucracy through the elected representatives and Ministers.
Pre-requisites for partnership
For these reasons, and with the combined clout of the national federations of chambers of commerce and industry and foreign financiers, collaborators and investors, bureaucrats have perforce to lend a receptive ear to business and industry. However, they can link arms far more purposefully and vigorously if only business and bureaucrats reorient their approach to one another to bring out the best in both.
On the side of business, it should be ensured that its spokespersons do not create needless confusion by indulging in cross-talk or working at cross-purposes. It should put in more effort to mesh the priorities of different sectors and evolve unity of purpose; business interest groups should not seek to upstage one another by putting forward half-baked and contradictory propositions. It should reconcile the continuing and widening divergences of interests between big and medium business on the one hand and small and tiny business on the other.
The most persistent obstacle to business extending cooperation to bureaucracy on the basis of goodwill and informed opinion is the proneness of bureaucrats to play with their cards close to their chests. Reliable and uptodate data and information are not made available, leaving business and the public in the dark on the exact basis of policies. Right to information should not just be on paper or statute book, but must be made real, binding the bureaucrats to be forthcoming with readiness and promptitude.
There also exists the possibility that bureaucrats and some sections of business would develop a vested interest in resorting to devious methods of discrimination and selective implementation of the reforms process. As a safeguard against this, a Watchdog Committee composed of high level representatives of both government and business should be set up to keep the progress of implementation under a constant and searching review.
Finally, ways should be found for cross-fertilisation between business and bureaucracy, by free exchange of talented executives from both directions for specified durations.
Partnerships built on the above foundation in a spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation can prove enduring to the lasting benefit of all concerned.