Thursday, January 11, 2018

Priorities for a District Collector?

It would be a useful exercise to study the priorities of District Collectors or Municipal Commissioners across India. 

I will stick out my neck and claim that in general two priorities would stand out. One, effective implementation of important (as signalled by the Chief Minister or the Government) hand-me-down government programs. Two, pursue specific individual initiatives (mostly very narrowly defined) launched by them (which generally get dismantled by the successor). 

I am not sure that this is what they ought to be doing. Come to think of it, many districts are large enough to be equivalent to full-fledged countries. Imagine a world where the main priority of national governments (or Prime Ministers) is implementation of one-size-fits-all programs made by a distant multilateral entity like the United Nations. It does not need much convincing that it would be an extremely dysfunctional world. Yet we unquestioningly adopt the same approach for our Districts. 

Now, I don't want to get into the well-known debate on the pros and cons of program design for large countries. The objective is to figure out a more relevant set of priorities for the District Collector in today's world. 

It is useful for the government, at state and centre, to go beyond programs and signal to its officers a more broad-based set of expectations, with focus on outcomes. How about economic growth, job creation, human resource quality development, and a couple of issues specific to the district? How many Collectors have sought to address job creation or learning outcomes (beyond skill development  trainings or increasing attendance/enrolment) in a comprehensive enough manner? How about economic growth, affordable housing, and transportation planning and infrastructure for the Municipal Commissioner? How many commissioners have sought to address traffic congestion or affordable housing (beyond road widening and weaker section housing construction) in a comprehensive enough manner?

Unfortunately these are not the typical uni-dimensional projectisable activities (though the components may be) nor possible to complete within the two-three year duration that is the tenure of officers. Further, meaningful attempts at addressing them demands comprehensive and multi-pronged strategies and their long-drawn implementation, not exactly the sort of things that District administrations typically do or prefer.

It is therefore important that officers be encouraged to look beyond their limited tenures and focus on the big picture of creating the enabling conditions for achievement of each of the identified priorities. This involves preparing long-term action plans (or updating an existing plan, if required), mobilising stakeholder coalitions, dovetailing resources, institutionalising implementation protocols and monitoring frameworks, and so on. In other words, laying the foundations or creating the conditions for sustainable progress. They should view success or failure of their tenure in terms of achieving progress with the priorities.

We need to make these the aspirational goals for young officers (and not claiming success with geo-tagging toilets or completing biometric attendance in schools or planting 1 million saplings in a day or getting the highest matriculation pass percentage). How about signalling accordingly with the likes of Prime Minister's Award for Excellence? How about retweeting and FB liking of achievements in these new areas (not the latter)?

This paradigm shift cannot be achieved by individual District Collectors acting on their own in the prevailing regime. It will require State and central governments embracing this world-view of development and supporting the District Collectors as required both administratively and financially. For example, programs should have sufficient flexibility to allow District Collectors to shift resources across components (of the same program) or programs themselves, as well as tweak norms based on the local requirements.

It is also not possible nor desirable to achieve this as a uniform and abrupt transformation. The State simply does not have the capacity to do this with any reasonable degree of effectiveness in most districts. Once the enablers are in place, some Collectors, both due to their own commitment and initiative as well as favourable contexts in their districts, will show the way. Staying the course over a decade can help achieve a transformation in the thoughts, priorities, and strategies at the cutting-edge of government.

None of this is to deny the importance of effective implementation of government programs. In fact, given the extreme poverty in the vast hinterland, coupled with a withering state, good old trying to just implement hand-me-downs effectively can make massive difference in savings lives and mitigating social discontent. But we should strive to gradually make them by an large (except those that sync with the district's own long-term growth agenda) simple hygiene factors to be addressed systemically without expending too much of the energy and commitment of the District Collector.  

I have blogged here and here about a closely related skew in priorities - the excessive focus on redistribution to the marginalisation of focus on growth. While pervasive extreme poverty and the stage of development means that redistributionary policies are important, the latter is no less so. In fact, if the former is about getting through life today, the latter is about creating the conditions for the world of tomorrow we aspire for. In the absence of the latter, we end up having more of today tomorrow too.


Unknown said...

The analogy you had drawn about United Nations handing down goals for sovereigns is rather apt. That immediately makes it clear to the reader the sub-optimal situation prevailing in the Districts.

It is desirable that priorities are tailored to the conditions and the context of the District. If I were to draw up priorities for district administrators, I would say it is health, education, infrastructure and jobs. For Municipalities, it can be transport, traffic, sanitation, drainage, street lights, etc.

However, there may be some Districts and Municipalities with some unique issues or challenges or priorities that do not fall under the above. In such cases, their objectives can be modified suitably or be different.

Locating big industrial plants in Districts will be the responsibility of the Union and/or State governments with the District administration playing a facilitating role.

District collectors can be given six months to draw up their priorities, upon taking office. Then, they can be evaluated on that basis and even offered financial incentives if they exceed goals set or if they do better than their peer group.

I will avoid economic growth altogether. Indeed, I would be hesitant to give that as a goal for even Union and State governments. Economic growth, in my view, is a residual or a natural outcome of getting the ingredients and getting the plumbing of economics right.

Far too many factors influence economic growth. Failure to achieve it brings pressure on governments to go for temporary fixes which could be harmful in the long run. Second, there is the risk of numbers being cooked up.

In China, many cities are now admitting to overstating their growth numbers by about 20%. Christopher Balding questions if the government in Beijing is not doing so. In that case, he is wondering if China's true gross debt (public and private) debt ratio is not 375% instead of 300%. Similar issues will arise in India too.

So, let us stay clear of economic growth as a goal for district administrators.

Gulzar Natarajan said...

Thanks for the comment. I am inclined to agree with you about the perils of including economic growth... Health, education, infrastructure and jobs are a good set of priorities...