21 Jul 2013

Private-Public Shift, is it Worthwhile?

Pawanexh Kohli
Eminent people from pvt sector in govt positions
Business Standard - 16 July 2013
Can the government retain domain expertise they tap onto... should they?

Occasionally, some say more frequently of late, the Indian government asks experienced minds from 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 persons, whom the government assigns certain tasks to.

I was recently touted as one of these so called experts functioning alongside senior bureaucrats, lucky to get featured with some far bigger names. In fact it was with great trepidation that I took on a leadership role as Chief Advisor on matters "cold-chain" and to help incubate the National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD)... my attempt to add value as-and-where capable.

Anyone in any supply chain or logistics trade will tell you that there are no experts and that learning on their fronts is evergreen and each instance co-exists with a series of activities - a life long firefight. 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 such 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 a semi-public appointment. It is a heady feeling and extremely satisfying to apply one's mind beyond the personal immediate and for public good.

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 the risks or bottlenecks is intoxicating. More than that it can be extremely overwhelming and daunting. Our senior administrators are not dodos, in fact I have frequently found many of them to be par excellence and motivated individuals!

Yes, an industry professional may not find this role all satisfying, if comparing material fulfilments, when it impinges insistently onto your personal life, or when undue vested inferences are drawn. It is a hard personal decision to accede your professional years and associated reputation to public service, specially when there is still vim and vigour to battle the intricacies that define corporate living. The differentials in rank, position and pay are phenomenal and it is only the good regard given for one's worth that can drive such a person ahead. It is awkward to make such a move and it definitely takes a while to find your footing among the career bureaucrats.

So when I saw an article in the Business-Standard, 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. This story relates to demand for transparent rules when engaging eminent individuals to close gaps that the government cannot fill from within. Depending on need, the bureaucrats attract such persons to work alongside, given the structural leeways that are possible. There are no standard rules for such need based lateral induction, and they are not part of the career path of government officers. The fact is missed that these individuals give up an active career to support the government, and some who are suitably placed, even offer their support pro bono.

Sometimes, a false furore is manufactured so that those who were invited to help in the first place, are made to feel unwanted - asphyxiated.  This normally happens when insufferable attitudes, habituated by imperious positions feel disrupted. The only recourse, to potent logic that is hard to contradict, is to raise distractions, compare benefits and query rules that otherwise provided the leeway to invite external support in the first place.

When working with or in the government, there has to be assurity that there is no conflict of interest. The govt places senior career officers to take up roles as managing directors and chairpersons of funds 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... a govt owned company misusing its access for wilful detriment of others? Sometimes, and obviously not unknown, because in today's age, the processes and openness of our media, will disallow this to stay hidden for long. The answer to any such doubts is to ensure compliance and probity through better checks and balances.

Similarly, in case of any outsider in an advisory position, they too are subjudice to process checks and to competitive watchfulness & intelligence if boundaries are overstepped. There should be only one caveat to taking on expertise from private industry - total transparency and zero occurrence of conflict interest. The answer is not denial or to restrict or limit the working abilities of such an individual; influence is more frequently and openly misused by government officers, if I may say so, as well within the private sector! However, when a private sector professional interplays in government roles, the same less likely, as all eyeballs are on her/him and most importantly, their motivating zeal is far different and urgent than that of a regular career officer.

At a recent book reading by Shashi Tharoor (MoS, HRD), he was heard propounding that relevant expertise into the public services should be inducted from private sector. Mid-management level and senior management level is what he recommended taking 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. However, it may be better to pursue this concept at even more senior levels, off people who are already stalwarts in their trade and have no axe to grind, except to contribute through sharing their expertise. It is pragmatic and strategic thinking that the government requires in various domains, and not so much the foot soldiers or functional workers.

More painful is when the originating logic, that the government needs working experience in a specific domain, is ignored once within the system. Many of those already entrenched within, wish to pretend to that same expertise by picking talking points and quick snippets - actually, google should have sufficed. The officers involved in administering the country, must realise that their expertise is administration and unique. But they must also take cognisance of the fact that another's domain is equally unique and some more so for being cross disciplinary. In modern days, the administrator will need to learn the mechanism to trust the experience others earn from years in their field. Not all domain aspects need to understood by the average generalist, except to ensure that targets and outcomes are defined, inclusivity and well-being is boarded, and execution is monitored. More relevant and experienced partners are needed by them.
The IAS refers itself as the steel frame; a frame is barren unless cemented with relevant know-how, which can then reinforce the structure that is India.
In the previous 10 years, 181 IAS officers quit to join corporate houses; I am sure the same has not happened at senior levels in reverse, though arguably it is needed much more. While the former generally is in search of greener pastures, the latter is typically born from a commitment for public service. A mindset shift is required in both cases and each type undergoes their proving grounds.

An outsider in the government, has to work to build mutual trust and understanding with bureaucratic minds who are in authority. But then incredulously, the office holder can get transferred and the story has to repeat. Either, because they themselves do not trust their predecessors, or because they wish to be seen to be different. It will be a rare individual from private sector, shorn of actionable authority and continuity, who will devote to this situation endlessly.

Personally, given all the effort and the strain, working for the country is difficult and stressful. More so, when one has not been part of the system and tolerant of the delays and debates inherent to democratic machinations. Individually, I was somewhat fortunate, because a very progressive set of officers at apex level embraced my support, in the sector I got involved in. They too, am sure, will speak of having to tolerate impatience and some untutored impertinence. However, where the agenda is betterment, as I fortuitously witnessed, a high level of trust develops and rightness manifests. This kind of public-private-partnership to combine knowledge, is more credible in context and relevant for nation building.

I write this with the hope that more corporate professionals from different work domains would participate with the bureaucratic managers of our country. It is a great experience that can widen your horizon and makes you all the better for life ahead. Yet, government should not expect this ex gratis or undervalue the support, and until it provides for fair fees for such expertise I do not foresee this happening much at any credible level. Maybe lateral professionals will spend a couple of passionate years to support the government's processes, and then revert to private enterprise. This is the path I see for myself after two years.

Even if this is how lateral induction into public service is defined, I see it as a worthy endeavour and recommend this to willing citizens. Every little bit of shared knowledge that is borne of expertise finally adds up, and will contribute to larger greater good – both domestic and global.

Step forth... fellow Indians!!


  1. Anonymous12:56

    Yes they must

  2. Yes, necessary. More such people must be used.

  3. We need more technocrats. You all are naturally part of aam aadmi movement. Thank you for taking risk and time to do the right thing.

  4. Anonymous01:27

    Great. good of all of you and for your country. keep it up

  5. Saurav01:41

    Quit, don't waste your time man!

  6. Government can always do with help, but do they want it. You are wasting effort you used better in other places.


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