Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The reductive seduction of writing opeds

As a disclaimer, the heading is not mine and is borrowed from this article and rephrased.

A new government has taken charge in India. Predictably newspapers are full of opeds by enthusiastic commentators giving ideas to the government. The following issues/ideas would make up the majority of such opeds.  
Economic growth is flagging and India needs to initiate policies that can kickstart private investments. The stalled projects should be de-clogged and the investment cycle revived. Environmental clearances and land acquisition inordinately delay infrastructure projects, and there should be a mechanism to expedite them. The NPAs of the banks should be expeditiously resolved and credit flows restored. 
India should increase manufacturing's share of GDP. India needs to create productive jobs. Government should get out of the way and unlock private entrepreneurship. India should dramatically enhance the ease of doing business. The case disposal rates in Indian courts are abysmal and should be significantly increased.  
India should increase its tax to GDP ratio. India needs to raise its public health care spending from 1.1% of GDP to 4%. India should increase its Gross Fixed Capital Formation from 28% of GDP to 35-40%. India should have a GST with just one or two slabs. 
Unaffordable housing threatens to strangle urban growth, and we need policies that can make housing affordable. Traffic congestion is choking our cities and should be addressed on priority. The air quality in Indian cities are among the worst, and it needs to addressed on war-footing. India needs to improve state capacity.
India needs to deregulate its agriculture sector and effectively implement the APMC Act and e-NAM. Student learning outcomes are abysmal in India and the country needs to improve it. Students passing out of colleges are unemployable and we need to address this. The primary health care system is broken and it is an imperative that it is fixed. Open defecation and manual scavenging are scourges, and they need to be eliminated. 
There are two reasons to be weighing in on a public debate on an issue through opeds. One, to highlight and raise the salience of an under-appreciated problem, and/or to outline its contributory factors. Two, to communicate a particular solution or path to addressing the problem. 

If you examine each of the above, they squarely belong to the first category. This poses a problem because, none of these issues are today matters disputed by politicians or policy makers (but undoubtedly they would have been so some time back). In other words, they are not being addressed or not have been resolved not for lack of awareness or even interest. In fact, I cannot think of too many Ministries/officials who would dispute any of these and not consider them priorities for action.

The real problem is not the 'what', but the 'how'. And the 'how' is very hard and there are too few commentators with anything meaningful to say on the 'how. 

Jean Claude Juncker famously said about politicians, 
We know what to do, but we don't know how to get re-elected after having done it.
Rephrasing it slightly for bureaucrats, I would say,
We know what to do, but we don't know how to get it done.
Outsiders are frustrated at governments for not acting on these issues. One of the ways they channel their anger is by writing opeds that largely focus on reiterating the problem, the 'what'. They feel they have said something on the problem. Unfortunately, these mean for little, except fulfilling the commentators' psychological satisfaction at having expressed his/her view on a public forum. Worse, they can become boring and, in case of commentators with a reputation and therefore likely to easily find a pulpit in the mainstream newspapers, it can end up crowding out less reputed others with more relevant ideas to present. 

Even if some commentators venture beyond stating the problem, most often they end up suggesting solutions that are so conceptual or macro-level as to be impractical and not actionable or reflect dogmatic ideological preferences. Housing can be made affordable by increasing the stock of such housing. Traffic congestion can be addressed by good master plans and (something called) Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Agriculture productivity can be increased by investing in irrigation and deregulating the sector. Everything from NPA problem of banks to electricity distribution losses can be addressed by privatisation. Or state capacity can be improved by lateral entry. 

Public commentators who seek to move the needle on a major public issue need to realise that they can be influential only if they move beyond 'how' and engage seriously with the 'what'. Relevant, practical, and actionable (the trinity of fiscally supportable, politically acceptable, and bureaucratically feasible) suggestions are what would be valuable and contribute to moving the needle. The rest is all catharsis.

So, a very gentle unsolicited advice to outsiders trying to influence governments. Get beyond the 'what'. Tell governments "how" to do that "what"?

No comments: