Making autonomous institutions accountable
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I tweeted last week about a relatively obscure, may be-page-7, Times Of India, article on the NITI Aayog’s plans to “vet the performance” of India’s central autonomous bodies, a motley group of entities ranging from the University Grants Commission to the Central Wool Development Board and the National Dope Testing Laboratory. “This will be interesting,” I said.
It got 72 retweets. Not that high for many more-followed veterans of Twitter, but about 70 times as many as most of my posts. The comments were bimodal: Half to the tune of “about time!”, half seeing the move as an opening for unwarranted, unwelcome, targeted interference with matters of public voice. The stark division of opinion suggests rough times ahead for what could be an important and constructive initiative.
Reviewing the autonomous bodies is an entirely logical thing to do, akin to review and rationalization of centrally sponsored schemes. The autonomous bodies are part of the institutional reefs that have accumulated over the years since independence. Their ranks have swelled dramatically since independence—from 35 in 1955 to 691 today, according to the Union government’s Web directory. They spend an estimated Rs60,000 crore annually—not an enormous sum, just 1,000 times what cricketer M.S. Dhoni reportedly earned for the rights to his biopic—but still big enough to earn a “review” recommendation in the Bimal Jalan expenditure management committee report. Some of their names sound like anomalies in today’s socio-economic milieu; others sound more important and relevant than they manage to be.
These autonomous institutions occupy prime positions in the interfaces between the state and edges of the market. They include some of the key channels for publicly funded scientific and industrial research and innovation, both premier and more inclusive teaching and training institutions, and sectoral initiatives to develop and deepen market infrastructure in areas that will be important for creating more geographically dispersed employment.
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, all of the Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indira Gandhi National Open University, the National Productivity Council, and Central Tool Rooms in various smaller cities are all part of the list of central autonomous bodies. The autonomous bodies should function well.
So, yes, it is about time to review the performance of the autonomous bodies. But it needs to be done carefully, and the right signals need to be sent to ensure that the review is constructive in the longer run. The Twitterati in general, and the even smaller subset that follows me, are not going to make or break any referenda on the matter, but raised hackles and the rallying cries of solidarity against tyranny will affect the prospects for a review to do more than recover a few rupees here and there. The potential savings, estimated at Rs3,000 crore by a “senior government official” cited in the article, are worth far less than a considered conversation about their role and how to leverage their hybrid structure.
The proposed review is a big stick, however, and it’s hard to have a conversation with one of those in the room. Mandates to look into finances offer significant powers to harass and annoy with information requests and inquiries in addition to targeted financial squeezes.
The breadth of the autonomous institution category, from the University Grants Commission and All India Council for Technical Education to some of the institutions they oversee, gives wide scope for wielding these powers in the very sectors where there are already a number of contentious ongoing conversations. The range of institutions and their mandates will require discretion to be used in reviews. The collection is too diverse to apply any kind of universal rules.
Comparison or benchmark cases for particular institutions are likely to be difficult to find. Much of the review for potential savings will have to be done on a case-by-case basis, both in terms of choices of entities to focus on and criteria for separating waste from performance in the ones that are chosen.
Speaking softly will be important for constructive rationalization of the autonomous agencies. There are a number of reasonable possibilities for doing so.
First, stating the terms of the review up front as much as possible and sticking to them removes some of the appearance of a witch-hunt. Listing the first principles used to identify institutions for closer scrutiny, the broad definitions of “waste”, and performance criteria that will be used could also be an opportunity to reflect on the broader importance of the quasi-state interface with society.
Second, sharing power to identify “waste” as much as possible with Union ministries that autonomous bodies are attached to, with peer institutions to identify potential savings, and with the institutions themselves could not only defuse scepticism but also improve the outcomes. It would be a daunting task for NITI Aayog staff to review the hundreds of institutions in a timely manner in any case.
Third, allowing institutions to opt out if they wish to move from being an autonomous body to something at more fiscal and administrative arms-length from the state could turn the narrow review into a much broader and participatory upgrade and perhaps even increase the public sector savings.
It will be interesting.
Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research & Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.
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