DEA OFFICIALS HAD BRAIN STORMING SESSION FOR IMPROVING THE WAY THEY WORK
ECONOMIC GROWTH TO BE THE CENTRAL THEME: FM
14:56 IST 7-01-2008
In arguably the first effort of its kind, the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) went on an off-site Retreat to Surajkund outside of Delhi last weekend. Led by Finance Secretary Dr. D. Subbarao, about 50 officers of DEA of the rank of Deputy Secretary and above, spent an entire day and indeed a good part of the night, intensively brainstorming on their vision of the emerging role of DEA in the fast changing economic situation and how best they might contribute to that vision.
Reflecting the theme of the Retreat which was “Improving the Way We Work”, each Division of the Department made a presentation on the ‘best practices’ they are evolving and identified one or two tasks where they will bring about a ‘paradigm shift’ in quality of output.
The highlight of the Retreat was a two hour session with the Finance Minister, Shri P. Chidambaram. Shorn of the hierarchical barriers that inhibit communication in the Government, and in a remarkably frank and honest exchange of views with the senior officers of DEA, the Finance Minister said that maintaining and accelerating economic growth should be central to all the work of DEA. He admitted that Ministry of Finance does not have policy control of the entire economic agenda because of democratic structures and coalition politics, but officers must capitalize on that part of the agenda on which they do have control, such as for example, driving the FRBM targets. He agreed that all policies must have a pro-poor bias, but was quick to add that economic growth was at the heart of poverty reduction. There cannot be any sustainable poverty reduction without economic growth.
The strength of DEA, in the Finance Minister’s view is a sense of pride that the officers had in working in this premier Department of the Government. Their high academic qualifications made them specially suited to give their best to their department. Pressed by the participants to let them know of their weaknesses or shortcomings, the FM said that the weakness, if any, was the quality of written communications. Written communication needs to be precise, brief in content and with sharply delineated positions for getting decisions from him. He also said officers must be on top of the subjects that they deal with.
When asked to give his view on whether and what kind of changes he has observed in the civil service over the last 20 years, the Finance Minister said that while the civil service attracted the best talent in the country over 20 years ago, today a lot of talented youngsters seek careers outside the Government, notably in the financial sector. He also thought that the life style of civil servants has become more ostentatious over the years. This he thought was not a positive development. Responding to a concern that even as the majority of the civil servants are competent and clean, the stereotype view of the entire civil service is shaped by a few corrupt officers, the Finance Minister said that while our civil service is not entirely meritocratic, and there may be a few exceptions, but in the long run competent and clean officers do rise to the top.
As per the Concept Note prepared for the Retreat, the Retreat was motivated by several concerns about the way the officers work and perform. First, currently there is no such thing as a collectively shared and broadly defined DEA strategy. Officers typically define their work in terms of ‘tasks’ without a full understanding of how the tasks they perform may be contributing to the Department’s overall goals. Second, officers are typically preoccupied with the immediacy of their work and deliverables with little time, and even less inclination, to reach out and learn about the work of others. The work environment too is also such that it does not encourage let alone reward such efforts. This ‘in silo’ style of functioning results in people developing straitjacketed perspectives and forfeiting the advantages of having a broader appreciation informing the content and process of their work. Third, even as there are informal groupings and lunch clubs, the sense of a ‘DEA team’ is less than optimal. In short, the Department is less than the sum of its parts. The content and process of the Retreat was accordingly designed to address some of these maladies and improve the way Government works.
The Retreat had several sessions on team building. Asked to let their imagination run riot, and indicate where they would like to be in five years, the DEA officers said they would like, in five years, India to become an acknowledged global power, India to achieve poverty reduction to such an extent that it will be unprecedented in human history and showcased as a text-book case of successful development. They also envisioned that DEA will be seen as the best run Department of Government of India and will be credited with the intellectual leadership for India’s economic transformation.
The Retreat featured Dr. Bimal Jalan, former Finance Secretary and Governor of RBI and Shri Nandan Nilakani, Co-chairman of the Board of Infosys as lunch-time speakers. Dr. Jalan said that there was a time when clout was thrust upon DEA because it had the power to ration foreign exchange. In today’s world of globalization and coalition politics, DEA will have to earn its clout by intellectual leadership. In a remarkably analytical speech, Nandan Nilekani agreed that there were differences in the challenges and opportunities of the civil servants and private sector managers. Unlike in the private sector, civil servants are not masters of their destiny. However, DEA, being the premier Department of the Government, must assume intellectual leadership in critical initiatives such as our transition to a low carbon economy, which, in the final analysis, is not a political or environmental issue, but an economic issue.