Day of the specialist

Public policy requirements of the 21st century demand a bureaucracy less generalist

In 1921, a Harvard medical school professor, Lawrence Henderson, wrote that medicine had crossed a “great divide” because “for the first time in human history a random patient with a random disease consulting a doctor at random stands a better than 50/50 chance of benefiting from the encounter”. In other words, knowledge, complexity and evidence in medicine had advanced to a point where it was better to be treated by physicians than to run in fear of them. India stands at a similar “great divide”: Generalists are more dangerous than specialists and the rising standards of human capital in public policy areas — education, healthcare, public finance, urbanisation — means we must stop equating bureaucrats with technocrats.

The most complex decision for any entrepreneur — social or business — is choosing between generalists and specialists because, as the American politician Mario Cuomo said, “You campaign in poetry but govern in prose”. Any effective organisation needs both; too much poetry, you get nothing done. Too much prose and you do nothing great. India’s current policy problems are very different from the nation-building challenge the country faced after Independence — job creation is an execution problem — and therefore equating bureaucrats with technocrats is wrong. The reasons are as follows: Politics is closer to poetry than to prose. The bureaucrat’s job is closer to writing prose than composing poetry; mostly implementing policy. But one needs to know a subject well enough to give inputs and also make them as simple as possible. Additionally, our binding constraint has shifted from the sins of commission (what the government does wrong) to the sins of omission (what the government does not do). This means outcomes need building coalitions, creating specialised knowledge, less hierarchy, more collaboration, domain networks and flatter professional structures.

Civil servants are often better-educated and more articulate than ministers; so they are able to talk about any area. But familiarity is different from mastery. The most interesting recent books about adult learning — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Angela Duckworkth’s Grit, and Anders Ericsson’s Peak — suggest that mastery requires time. Isaiah Berlin once said “A fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one important thing”. Better policy outcomes need hedgehogs; general practitioners don’t conduct heart surgeries.

India’s private sector has substantially raised its stakes in human capital, technology and innovation since 1991. Of course, comparing private sector execution to government performance is unfair because private sector goals are finite unlike the multiple and often contradictory goals of the government. But the capacity of the state does lag in certain respects and fixing it doesn’t need more cooks, but a different recipe. Political economist Charles Lindblom once described markets as similar to fingers (nimble and dexterous) and governments as akin to thumbs (powerful because of their capacity to exercise authority but lacking subtlety and flexibility). Countries should not have all fingers or all thumbs. Civil service reform is not a demand for a smaller state; it is needed to improve state capacity and effectiveness.

Of course, technocratic intervention alone is not enough to fix the government’s deficits. This is not a case for eliminating the generalist civil service but radically reforming it; ending the monopoly (25 per cent of top bureaucratic positions should be lateral entries), introducing specialisation (generalist civil servants must specialise after 10 years of field experience and have longer tenures), weeding out people (replicating the colonel threshold of the army for early retirement if not shortlisted for promotion), sharper performance management (it is mathematically impossible for 95 per cent to be outstanding. The across-the-board pay increases are unfair), ending ageism (we need to give top jobs to people when they are 45 rather than 58 years old), giving the top roles to functional services (for example, adopting the police commissioner system nationally), de-layering (eliminating additional and special secretaries) and rationalising (cutting the number of Central ministries to 25).

India and China are on opposite sides of this great divide. China’s geographic core has been governed, almost non-stop, by a rationalist bureaucracy since the late sixth century. But China is banging against the limits of what Daniel Bell admiringly describes as a “political meritocracy” in The China Model. The Chinese state’s sole focus on improving material conditions by “filling their stomachs and emptying their minds” is running out of steam as an increasingly affluent middle class recognises that they don’t live in an economy but a society and need more generalists (elected politicians and impartial judges). India, in contrast, has enough politicians but needs technocrats. In his book, China’s Economy, Arthur Kroeber suggests that, in public, Chinese officials like to describe reforms as “crossing the river by feeling for the stones” but in private they admit it’s more like “walking a tightrope over a bottomless pit with the rope behind you on fire”. A tightrope, raging fire, and bottomless pit are apt metaphors for urgency of reforms in India. The expiry date for generalist senior bureaucrats is past because they were never — and have only rarely become — technocrats.


Manish Sabharwal

Exec. Vice Chairman & Co-Founder
TeamLease Services Ltd

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