SarkarInterrupted-I

IMG_0796

A cursory glance at the disconnect between the elements of government (Sarkar) and the public, arising out of a recent personal experience. It started when we decided to get our marriage registered with the government…soon after our wedding (almost 06 years ago). Lack of planning at our end led to a delay, which has extended to this day. Lack of ‘comprehensive’ documentation (combined with difficult demands like producing the priest who presided over the ceremony) was the main culprit as was a ‘lack of available time’ to a lesser degree. Living away from our domicile cities and being afforded short leave intervals added to the delay.

To our surprise, we were recommended a Delhi government website (http://delhi.gov.in/wps/wcm/connect/doit/Delhi+Govt/Delhi+Home) that allowed online registration and provided a list of documents required, which was elaborate but not quite the ‘labour of modern-day Hercules’ we were confronted with earlier. The website is under maintenance as I write this. The acknowledgement letter was received promptly, confirming our appointment between 1000h and 1200h on our chosen day (two days later). We were pleasantly surprised with this online process, but in retrospect, I admit I forcefully suppressed a few doubts that began surfacing from the depths of my mind. Having arrived at the said place on time, we were surprised to find that ‘online’ applications were not welcome. It turned out to be a facility actively subscribed at one end and conveniently forgotten at the other. This was confirmed by the intermediaries, the staff, who actually rule the roost in many government offices. Not only that, we were told that ‘the groom’ had to be from Delhi (against the ‘either’ parties we were led to believe from the website). Sexism to this degree was unexpected, but then so was our encounter with what we hoped would be facilitators, and who in fact were more than happy to leave us stranded with a big question mark (and a couple of exclamation marks)  in our minds.

Being government servants ourselves, and having been acquainted with the inner workings of such offices, we did the obvious. Track connections at the senior level of government who could clarify doubts and facilitate our process. It turns out that sexism is passe, but for the whims and fancies of the support staff. We were also assured of a ‘reference’ provided by someone-who-knows-someone-who-knows-someone and who could reconcile our issue amicably. Having experienced a classical ‘interruption’, I can think of the following pointers towards resolving such hindrances in the future. Although, I warn you, this is just a theoretical exercise, for the horse is stubborn and it will rather die of thirst than taste the sweet elixir of life.

1. Force the ‘online’ process into daily government dealings – Cuts flab (reduces the burden on already taxed staff), streamlines the process (good riddance to opinions/whims/fancies), thus reducing the ‘human’ element and avoiding conflict/misalignment of interests as the above case suggests. I guess an ideal working day for the staff in question would be one without petitioners.

2. Enforcing newly introduced practices – The fact that an online process exists draws attention to failure in implementation, requiring periodic audits and revisits to smoothen the changed pattern of working. Any change introduced in a process that deals with a huge population needs to be given an adequate gestation period. Although I’m not sure about the true costs involved, it is safe to assume that they’re not negligible. Apart from the incurred expenditure, a lack of returns also needs to be factored into the overall costs, in terms of man-hours lost/wasted as a result of failure in implementation. Taken together, the costs would add up substantially.

3. Incentivising the Staff – I don’t blame the staff for their attitude. True, when we find exceptions, we hold them in high esteem, expecting their traits to symbolize the minimum acceptable bar of performance (I think this has to do with our inherent ability to set standards in our minds for each and everything, progressively increasing the bar till our next near-to-perfect experience). One needs to remember that the staff is employed on a ‘particular job’, gets a particular ‘pay’ and has specific ‘career paths’, all incentivised by ‘survivability’ rather than ‘performance based merit’. Piling on workload under such circumstances, while not unwelcome, would definitely be a drain, especially when no additional benefits accrue (and when the ‘unchosen many’ continue to draw similar benefits without the extra burden of work). One way of addressing this issue would be through optimum measurement of ‘effort’, in terms of ‘result-based performance’ rather than the normative ‘work-hours’ put in (getting rid of the ‘over-time, under-worked’ work ethic). However, this would require additional resources and comprehensive monitoring mechanisms, justified only under certain specific instances where the ‘online’ process doesn’t offer better yields and in some where a combination of both is recommended. Passport processing have been well addressed during the last few years, relying on a combination of ‘online’ application process and ‘in person’ verification process.(http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2012-04-03/kolkata/31281195_1_appointments-passport-officer-passport-seva-kendra). I added this link to highlight two issues: that serious attempts to convert plans into ground reality are forthcoming, and the fact that ‘follow-up’ still continues to be a weak area (as evidenced from the comments). Enforcement continues to be a bane, whilst the posterboys walk away from the scene after a glittering ribbon-cutting ceremony.

4. Enhancing the capacity for institutional learning – As the case of ‘passport processing’ above suggests, there are vital lessons here than can be applied on other cases of similar nature, involving registration and verification. Applying these lessons can help reduce costs, provide an effective method to store data, help streamline further processes through data retrieval, and help individuals and government bodies manage their time and effort optimally.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s failed efforts to address petitioners in person speaks volumes about the issues plaguing the masses and the impracticability of addressing these in-person. While it is not practical to expect any drastic improvement in the present system of functioning, buoyed by the public mood, it is possible to ‘crowdsource’ change from the bottom up. In my conversations with a few friends from Brazil, I chanced upon the option of utilising internet/networking/communication towards creating a hybrid of direct and representative democracy. It emerges that in Argentina, this phenomenon is being experimented upon by an interesting group called “La Red” (The Network), a political party totally constituted through the internet. They have gone so far as to develop a software called Democracy.OS (http://democracyos.org/), which will enable direct participation of citizens – to get informed, join the conversation, and vote on political and legislative topics.

Through such initiatives, we may chance upon some unique solutions that could fit well into our local context, helping draw attention to the ‘effectiveness’ of the government’s best laid plans. Just as software giants manage software for the government’s initiatives, off-line interaction may be judiciously outsourced to private players (akin to the ‘aadhar’ effort). Online or offline, anything will do, as long as one can ‘reduce’ effort and time. Top -> Down can and should be turned upside down.

Food for thought: “When common sense starts sounding like a prized commodity, there is obviously much work yet to be done.”

Looking forward to the next one.