Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chief Feedback Officers for public bureaucracies?

The Harvard economist, Greg Mankiw is reported to have said that his job as the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors to President George W Bush was not to formulate policies, but to "politely kill off bad ideas"! It is commonplace in governance to have egregiously bad ideas emerging and getting implemented without raising too much critical attention. It will be only after a few millions of dollars are frittered away, couple of years wasted, and even a few lives lost, that many of these ideas get abandoned. So how can we institutionally "kill off bad ideas" in public systems?

In fact, I am inclined to put this right up there at the top as one of our biggest governance challenges. Since very few people have the courage to tell that the emperor has no clothes, bad ideas and even worse implementation strategies persist. So how about an institutionalized agency for providing critical feedback on every new idea or initiative. All such policies could be filtered through the office of this agency before it sees the light of day. 

It is widely acknowledged that deficiencies in channelizing critical feedback on organizational performance or new initiatives is one of the most important reasons for organizations failing or under-performing. Such negative feedback, if appropriately channeled to the notice of the management and thenceforth acted upon, can become the difference between a successful organization and a normal one. Even at a theoretical level, negative feedback plays a critical role in stabilizing any physical system by acting to remedy (attenuate) the deficiencies (excesses) and lapses (deviations) within the system.

In the real world, criticism is not taken kindly in any organization, private or public. They are seen as an affront to the authority of the decision makers and detrimental to organizational discipline. Any informal or formal expression of opposition to a widely held view within the organization is often perceived as undesirable and gets institutionally suppressed.

However, in view of the most often clearly evident informational feedback value, organizations should be valuing negative feedback and be paying a premium for accessing them. In the circumstances, it may be appropriate to have an institutionalized role for those who can serve as sources of negative feedback for the organization.

A designated authority who focuses specifically on finding the negatives/cons in an existing process or proposed initiative can dramatically increase the inflow of valuable information and inputs that can go into increasing the quality of decision-making. The institutionalization of such post can free such critics from the shackles of political correctness and enable them to freely express their sceptical thoughts on the proposed reforms. And given the specific nature of their task, this is one activity that can be easily outsourced without generating too many conflicts of interest.

So how about a Chief Feedback Officer (CFO) who would act as a devil's advocate on existing processes/practices or for new initiatives proposed to be implemented within the organization. In order to signal his or her role even more starkly and drive home its cognitive salience, one could as well call them Chief Critical Officers. A CFO can play a critical role in getting bad ideas nipped in the bud. 

In many respects, such CFO's are more valuable in public sector bureaucracies than private ones. Government bureaucracies suffer from an acute problem of institutionalized suppression of all alternative points of view. Any criticism of government programs are seen as violation of conduct rules and becomes an object of mistrust and scorn. In fact, the absence of effective feedback about the prospects and implementation of government policies has for long been the bane of our governance systems.

These CFOs can become an institutionalized check against entrenched vested interests whose objective is to subvert well-intentioned government programs or push through bad programs that suit their interests. It also acts as a check against ideolgically blinkered decision-making. It is another matter that some of these critics themselves could end up becoming co-opted by these same interests. But on the balance, the numerous benefits far outweigh the few costs.

Further, an institutionalized role for critical voices will also by itself contribute towards increasing the acceptability of these alternative points of view and their ultimate incorporation into the public system and its decision making processes. 

The closest example of such a system is the American Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which seeks to provide objective and non-partisan analysis to aid in economic and budgetary decisions on a wide array of programs covered by the federal budget. In India too, the Prime Minister's Economic Advisory Council seeks to play such a role. But the inherent nature of decision making in countries like India means that such institutions should have a more explicitly negative feedback providing role.

The danger with CFOs is that once the file gets circulated with the negative feedback, in this age of CBI enquiries and activist judiciaries, the environment of decision paralysis could turn into a decision rogor mortis! Happily, there are also ways in which such a turn of events can be avoided!

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