Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Arun Maira | Catalytic change to planning

The Planning Commission has been rusting for too long. It has to reform itself and reform systems around it too

Institutions rise. Some win laurels. Then many rest on them. Till several rust on them. Some institutions stand out and lead others to rise too. While many get dragged into the system and these are no longer system reformers. Some institutions stand out in India today: the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the Competition Commission of India. The country needs many more. The Planning Commission, according to its critics and according to its chairman, the Prime Minister himself, has been rusting for too long. It has to reform itself and reform systems around it as well.

The Planning Commission must become a dynamic knowledge organization and an effective facilitator of implementation. Meanwhile the planning ministry within it will have to continue performing legacy services to the government of allocations and approvals until these processes are re-engineered. A plan has been drawn up to enable the Commission to change its orientation. A committee chaired by C. Rangarajan has also proposed some changes: remove the distinction between plan and non-plan funds; shift budget management responsibilities to the finance ministry; and lift the Planning Commission’s function to overall strategic guidance of the economy. These are in line with the plan made by the Commission internally.

Archimedes said: “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I can move the world." The Commission must establish pivot points within itself from which it can leverage resources outside. Four pivot points have been located.

The first is that the Planning Commission must be a node within a national knowledge network. The metaphor for managing flows of knowledge today is “cloud computing" not “computer mainframes". The Commission should not be designed like a mainframe with all resources housed in it. It does not need many experts within itself. Rather, it must access the vast network of knowledge available outside and channel expertise to address the country’s needs. For this, it should have a small, dynamic cell within it to stimulate the formation of a network of think tanks and establish learning processes between policymakers and knowledge providers.

The second is a unit dedicated to develop and use modern methods of planning and communication. The Commission has begun the use of scenario planning to provide the radar that stakeholders have requested. It has conducted the largest consultation process with citizens ever to prepare the 12th Five-Year Plan and the scenarios that accompany it. Almost 1,000 civil society organizations, scores of business associations, and dozens of think tanks participated in the exercise. The Commission has begun to map the diverse audiences it must persuade and the channels they can be reached through, including social media where appropriate.

The third is the manner in which the Commission improves the states’ performance. Annual meetings to approve the states’ plan sizes with admonishments about their poor performance are not very effective. Rather the states want the tools to improve their own performance and knowledge of best practices adopted by other states. The Commission has designed a process to support the states and has begun implementing it too. This process must be strengthened and the orientation of the Commission’s state plans division must be changed accordingly.

India’s progress has slowed down impeded by thousands of bottlenecks, at the centre, in the states, and in the cities. Contention amongst stakeholders stall policies and projects. Confusion results in long delays and wasted resources. The fourth pivot is a movement the Commission launched a few months ago called the India Backbone Implementation Network (IbIn). It is spreading around processes and tools to convert contention to collaboration and confusion to coordination so that plans can be made and implemented. Other countries, such as Korea, Malaysia, Germany, China and Japan, are using such techniques. These are being brought to India. Indian best practices are also being discovered and deployed.

The rollout of IbIn is modelled on the total quality management (TQM) movement which transformed Japanese industries in the 1970s. Techniques by which teams could improve the performance of their system spread around Japan. TQM was not a government programme. Many partners, from the private sector, academia and government, stirred and spread the movement across Japan.

The Planning Commission does not require a large number of experts to make these four critical changes. They are small but pivotal to change the Commission’s orientation. However it will be more difficult to change the large planning ministry to which the members of the Commission are attached. The ministry is embedded within the inertia of the larger government machinery: its service rules, transfer systems, and its archaic systems of file movements. The Planning Commission must be a leader in government in applying modern methods of work that enable systemic and faster decisions. There is no law that says that cross-divisional teams of the Commission cannot have a dialogue face-to-face to produce a national view instead of writing their narrow divisional perspectives in files that meander around.

Finally, it is not necessary and hardly feasible to change the people to change nations and institutions. Change the way people work and think, and institutions and nations will change.

Arun Maira is a member of the Planning Commission. His book, Redesigning the Airplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions, will be released in April.

This is the last of a two-part series.

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