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Private-Public Shift

Can the government, should the govt retain domain expertise they tap onto?

Pawanexh Kohli
Occasionally, some say more frequently of late, the Indian government asks people with experience in the private sector to take on a role with them, to help devise, advise or in some case execute some policy decisions. I am not talking of tendered projects but about individual people, that the government assigns certain tasks to.

I was recently touted as one of these so called experts functioning alongside senior bureaucrats... attempting to add value as-and-where capable. In fact it was with great trepidation that I took on the role as Chief Advisor on matters "cold-chain" and to help incubate the National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD).

Anyone in any supply chain or logistics trade will tell you that there are no experts and that learning on the logistical front is evergreen and each instance and each co-existence with a series of activities is a life long fire fight. The grass root, hands-on experience, if applied defensively, will only lend to pat-on-call excuses, ready-reckoners of sorts to explain failure.

When experience is applied positively, it results in pre-emption, troubleshooting and direction setting. Yet, experience is never fulsome or complete. The caveat I put here is that we are all only a little bit different from others, never all knowing or all knowledgeable.

Yes, it does feel nice to be called upon and it is extremely fulfilling to learn that ones past existence has worked out to have a greater meaning than what was merely a job one was trying to accomplish then. I was extremely honoured when the powers-that-be decided that one's previous achievements, which were par for the course in the striving to survive, were worthwhile to access through appointment. It is a heady feeling and extremely satisfying to apply one's mind beyond the immediate.

To utilise three decades of exposure in strategy and tactics with companies to formulate alike on a national level, to aim these at a future and to pre-empt as far as practicable risks or bottlenecks is intoxicating. More than that it can be extremely overwhelming and daunting. Our administrators are not dodos, in fact I have frequently found them to be par excellence and to be extremely motivated individuals!

Yes, the role is not at all satisfying when you compare material fulfilments, when it impinges onto personal life, or when undue inferences are drawn. It is a hard personal and professional decision to accede your years and associated reputation to public service, specially when there is still vim and vigour to battle the intricacies that define corporate living. The differential in rank, position and pay are phenomenal and it is only the regard given for one's worth that drives you the person ahead. It is awkward to make such a move and it definitely takes a while to find ground.

So when I saw an article (click on picture above), that basically suggests that there is strife over the level and scope of contributions by senior people who took the private-public shift, it touched an already stretched nerve. 

There has to be assurity, an ensuring that there is no conflict of interest when working with the government. The govt places its senior professional officers to take up roles as managing directors and chairmen of corporates and public companies, where there is clear scope for pulling-of-strings, of monopolising on policy interventions, etc? The question is, how often does that happen.... or even, when was the last time you heard of a govt owned company misusing its access for detriment of others? Rare indeed, because the processes and openness of the land, our media, will disallow this from happening in today's age.

Similarly, someone in a position of influence will also be subjudice to process checks and to competitive watchfulness & intelligence if overstepping boundaries. Rare, but not obviously unknown - so the answer is to ensure compliance through better checks and balances. The answer ought not to be restrictive or by limiting an individual; there should be only one caveat to taking on expertise from private industry - total transparency and zero occurrence of conflict interest. Influence is more frequently and openly misused in the private sector, if I may say so!

At a talk by Shashi Tharoor (MoS, HRD), he was heard propounding that expertise induction into the public services should be sourced from private sector. Mid-management level and senior management level is what he recommended taking on into the civil services; the agenda is that professional work experience would be tapped, much like a MBA with working experience is far preferred to a rookie MBA. I say more of this sentiment and its actualisation should happen.

Personally, given all the effort and the strain, working for the country is difficult and stressful. Specially when one has not been part of the system and tolerant of the delays and debates inherent to democratic machinations. 

I would hope that more professionals from private sector and work domains would participate with the managers of our country. It is a great experience and widens your horizon and makes you all the better for life ahead. Yet, unless a market price is possible as fees for this expertise, I do not foresee this happening much. Maybe a couple of years of pursuing a passion, and a revert to private enterprise is how this will manifest. That too, is a worthy endeavour and recommended to fellow citizens.

Step forth... fellow Indians!!