Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

India’s poor institutional memory

The big problem is that there is too little learning across the system. States continue to try to reinvent the wheel

How well has India done in the first two years of the Modi government? The verdict in the media seems to be: well begun but hardly done yet. A larger question is, how well has India done since it became independent 69 years ago. Then, as now, there was a new, untested government. And the question then was, as now: will the new government learn fast how to guide the development of a large, poor, democratic country with high aspirations.

Development is the result of enterprises and institutions in a country learning to do new things they have not done before. The faster they learn, the faster the country develops and grows. What are the impediments to faster learning in a country and to a government’s learning? Insights can be found by comparing countries that have progressed at different rates. If one has gone further than another in the same time, starting from similar conditions, what enabled it to learn and develop faster?

China and India, the two billion-plus Asian giants, provide a good comparison to extract hypotheses about country-level learning. Both countries, with similar size economies and similarly poor, started on their journeys of development in the middle of the last century. Without doubt, China has developed and grown much faster than India. Its economy is now five times the size of India’s and China is far ahead of India in human development indicators too: health, education and reduction of poverty.

A recent study, by Luke Jordan (then with the World Bank) and Sebastien Turban and Laurence Wilse-Samson of Columbia University, contrasted the abilities of the Indian and Chinese states to learn. It pointed to several differences. The Chinese state seems to be more deliberate in its approach to learning. It encourages a city or province to experiment with new policies, observes outcomes, and then applies what is learned to the rest of the country. Top-level leaders are selected from those who have managed a complex system well at a lower level—as head of a city or provincial government. When a single, authoritarian, political party runs the country everywhere, the centre can manage political promotions and ‘organizational learning’ across the system. Singapore, a tiny, centrally managed country that has developed remarkably well, has been able to manage these processes even more easily.

Chinese and Singaporean methods cannot be copied in India, a nation with greater political variety and social diversity. Since top-down directives cannot work in India, its leaders must find other ways to remove the learning disabilities within a complex system.

For this, Indian leaders should address systemic issues like the poor ‘institutional memory’ within the Indian government. New governments and ministers want to show they are different from their predecessors. They ignore whatever little (or much) their predecessors had learned. Within the government, senior officers are moved around frequently—for political reasons, or for advancing their own careers. Therefore, even if there are records ‘on file’ of what went on before, there is very little transmission of ‘tacit’ knowledge of complex issues. This deeper learning is lost in the changes.

While the frequency of changes of government will be determined by the democratic process, transfers within the government need not be as frequent as they are—some officers moving through several postings in a year. Though it will be hard on their egos, ministers and government functionaries should be required to extensively debrief their predecessors. Before they announce a new scheme to show how smart they are, and tweet to show how stupid their predecessors were, they should be required to humbly learn, for the sake of the country, how to make ongoing schemes work better.

India is a very large and diverse country, which at long last may be realizing that it cannot be managed from the centre. The states, whether or not they and the centre are ruled by the same party, must have the freedom to develop their own appropriate solutions. Cities and villages must become more capable of self-government. Among the many benefits of localization of governance is the opportunity for many different solutions to emerge. India can be the world’s biggest laboratory for multiple experiments in social and economic change—and indeed it already is. However, an Indian problem is that there is too little learning across the system. States and cities continue to try to reinvent the wheel, either because they do not know what others have learned, or because of the ‘not invented here’ desire to show off one’s own smartness.

Incredible India needs platforms for distilling and sharing learning across the country, among states, cities and villages, and across ministerial silos too. Indeed, this is the charter of the NITI Aayog, which has replaced the Planning Commission, which for too long tried to plan and manage India’s development from the centre. The NITI Aayog is on a very steep learning curve. Learning platforms are not merely websites and portals. Effective learning platforms must have processes for transmission of tacit knowledge too.

India, with its scale and its diversity, and for the speed with which it must now learn to catch up with others, must create the world’s most dynamic learning system.

Arun Maira is a former member of the Planning Commission.

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