London’s integrated transport authority, Transport for London (TfL), is looking for a managing director, planning. Their advertisement says, “Excellent package. A unique...opportunity for an individual with world-class experience in transport policy, planning and project delivery to shape London’s future.” It adds a background: “TfL is one of the largest integrated transport authorities in the world incorporating London Underground, London Buses, London Rail, the strategic road network, taxis, walking, cycling and other transport modes. In the six years since its inception, TfL has established a track record of delivery and is playing a key part in the city’s radical transformation.”
The job itself sounds challenging: “The managing director, planning will play a central role in defining the development of transport policy and the transport network, (with) responsibility for providing world-class strategic transport planning direction...; developing the Mayor’s Transport Strategy...; co-ordinating...major capital projects as part of TfL’s £10 billion investment programme; close collaboration across the business and Greater London Authority group to ensure implementation of policies and projects; and liaison with European and international transport planning networks to bring best practice.” The search welcomes applications from everyone, “regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, faith or disability.”
As I read the advertisement in a leading international publication, I wondered what a similar search for an Indian city would look like. I came up with: “Managing director, Bangalore Metro Rail. Compensation of Rs30,000 per month, with perks including housing, help, car. A learning opportunity for a generalist manager with no background in transportation management. Reporting to the chief minister of Karnataka through a fuzzy structure that includes the principal secretary, the chief secretary, and the urban minister, you will be responsible for delivering an urban mass transport solution that’s totally disconnected from other city transportation modes—bus, road, taxi, pedestrian—with no inter-institutional coordination, and plenty of jurisdictional territoriality.”
Additional information could read: “In the four years since its inception, the Bangalore Metro has only managed to create a broad blueprint for a rail-based mass transit system, with financial projections escalating from Rs4,000 crore to Rs6,500 crore. Public support is suspect. Timing, cost and quality of implementation are uncertain. Your role as managing director is unclear, with minimal authority to take any substantive decisions. If, despite the odds, you do a good job, you will surely be transferred in two years. This job is open only to IAS officers. Others need not apply, since this is not an equal opportunity position.”
So much for bringing in the best management talent into our public institutions. Unfortunately, the comparison gets worse. I was so intrigued by TfL’s advertisement that I checked out its governance structure.
Chaired by Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, the TfL board includes the CEO of a regional railway; a long-term wheelchair user and disability activist; a professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College; a local city councillor working closely with minority communities; a senior real-estate executive; the ex-MD of Land Rover and British Aerospace; an investment banker with expertise in public financing; two union officials; the president of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry; and an NGO leader working on sustainable transport policies and practices.
A mix of politicians, bureaucrats, union representatives, market players and social activists. It isn’t possible that this motley group is one big happy family—there must be intense debates as they struggle to find common ground without compromising their individual integrity.
Imagine Bangalore metro’s governing board. An opaque body filled exclusively with government representatives, there is no doubt it misses the vitality of a more diverse group. My intention is neither to single out Bangalore—we could easily replace it with any other Indian city, nor to focus on urban transport. These observations could be made of most public services. Just a slice-of-life snapshot on the royal mess we have created in the architecture of our public institutions.
We don’t give the best people a shot at running our public institutions. We don’t create robust governing mechanisms to oversee them. We consign powerful ideas such as politics and democracy to mothballed romanticized debates rather than meaningful outcome-oriented negotiations. If we have to break this cycle, we need to stop settling for mediocrity in government, start demanding excellence, and have the courage and imagination to change the rules of engagement.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org