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Home >Opinion >Columns >Governments and cricket teams both need the advice of strangers

My friend and fellow columnist for Mint, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, research director at IDFC Institute, sent me a good paper written by his colleagues on the administrative and civil service reforms (‘Bureaucratic Indecision and Risk Aversion in India’, April 2021) that India needed. When I shared my comments with him, I wrote that the authors should put the paper away for three weeks or so, and then revisit it as though they were reading a paper written by someone else, sent to them for review. Little did I realize then that this advice—while quite familiar to most of us—was actually mimicking the idea of ‘talking to strangers’. It is not a strange idea when examined closely. It is about ‘sounding boards’, and more.

This advice forms part of the much- acclaimed book, Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It. Authored by Chris Clearfield and Andras Tilcsik, it describes a seminal essay first published in 1901, The Stranger, by a Jewish academic called Georg Simmel who was reluctantly accepted into German academia. According to Simmel, the power of strangers stems from their objectivity; they are not bound by ties and their actions are not confined by custom, piety or precedent. He cites the example of medieval cities in Italy recruiting judges from outside because no native was free of entanglement in family interests.

It is not that strangers do not have biases, but because they are on the outside, they see things differently. When their positions change (i.e., when they become ‘insiders’), they may change their views. For example, we have seen that happen with Indian political parties. Their views on policy reforms that are necessary for the country are vastly different when they are in opposition and when they are governing. Even more glaringly, some reject their own poll promises to oppose implementation moves made by a rival party in power.

The authors of Meltdown offer a more contemporary example than the recruitment of judges in medieval Italian cities. Sasha Robson, who had to decide on an apartment to buy, decided to consult a friend who was living on another continent. Sasha had fallen in love with a particular flat, but wanted an objective outside opinion. She sent her friend Kristina details of five condos that she had looked at and was careful not to reveal her own preferences or biases. It took Kristina, the ‘friend-outsider’, just a few hours to respond, ranking Sasha’s top choice a distant fourth out of five. The points raised by Kristina struck a chord with Sasha, and she eventually made a choice that she was happy with.

Now, what is the lesson of the story? Note that Sasha chose to consult a friend she trusted. Kristina was an outsider or stranger to the situation, but Sasha had no doubt that she would want the best possible apartment for her. The advice may have turned out to be either right or wrong, but Kristina’s motives were clear, which was why she was consulted.

That is a lesson for experts who routinely bemoan that those in authority don’t consult experts. It is taken as a sign that the powers-that-be are insular and opposed to advice. The missing element, such providers of expertise must note, is the trust factor. One cannot be a perennial critic of those in authority and expect to be listened to. Interests and objectives need to be aligned. Sasha had no worry that Kristina had ulterior motives. If so, she would not have sought Kristina’s opinion. If critics expect or want to be taken seriously, then they should reflect on what they prioritize. Is it their fame, their career advancement prospects, their life goals or the larger common good? If it is the former set of considerations, they fail the first test. Trusted advice, including criticism and warnings, is offered in private and not with a megaphone.

On their part, those in power have something to keep in mind too. Once trust is established, then the ‘outsider/stranger’ must be encouraged and given the freedom and space to speak up. Meltdown also refers to the origin of the phrase ‘Devil’s advocate’. It was coined because the Roman Catholic Church had entrusted the task of making a case against candidates it was considering for sainthood to the ‘Promoter of the Faith’, popularly known as ‘Devil’s Advocate’. In modern times, the Israeli Military Intelligence Agency, Aman, has a Devil’s advocate office. Apparently, the sports writer Bill Simmons had suggested that every professional sports team appoint a vice-president of common sense.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, for one, must reflect on this suggestion. If such a vice-president were there, she may well have pointed out the possible errors of team selection made by India’s cricket management to play in last month’s one-off World Test Championship match against New Zealand, and that’s just for a start.

None of this is new. The Tamil poet-saint Thiruvalluvar, who I am very fond of citing, has many couplets on the importance of trusted advisors. They meet the criteria of being ‘strangers’, as Meltdown speaks of them. The book’s big lesson is that getting such advice is essential for all decision-makers, be they individuals, institutions or governments. Both experts and those in authority must understand what it takes for the arrangement to be effective in improving the quality of decisions made.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views.

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