The non-performance of the public sector undertakings has long been debated and analyzed, not only by independent observers but also in the bureaucratic corridors. And volumes have been written about the underlying causes of their abominable performance and the probable remedies in the form of newspaper editorials and professional articles. Neither the State has been lagging behind in probing the malfunctioning of these white elephants, warranted by the magnitude of the investment in them and their drain on the national wealth; after all, the Department of Public Enterprises too had appointed umpteen expert committees for redressal but not for much avail.
It’s because the bulk of these studies have been done, not by personnel within these enterprises but by the experts from without, with attendant limitations in that the aliens generally confine themselves to an over-view of the organizational functioning with a special focus on the top management with the lower order remaining beyond their expert radar range.
Thus, the administrative reforms advocated by those have been invariably aimed at the apex of the managerial pyramid borne out of the hope that they insensibly percolate down the organizational line, and thus would aid its structural reformation as a whole. Though a sound premise in itself, it does not appear to have worked to the desired extent for reasons which are not as apparent from without as they are from within. This partly explains why no perceptible efficiency could be brought about in the functioning of the public undertakings despite various efforts, over the years, by one and all.
However, the application of mind by someone, who had been in the middle management like me, privy to the top disarray as well as the bottom disorder, would provide the scanner for an inner view for the outsiders and in it lies the relevance and justification of this attempt. The solution to the prevailing public sector stagnation lies a closer examination of the so-called grassroots - the foundation levels - of the management edifices of these organizations with a view to find out possible remedial measures for redressal, and accordingly, we shall follow the typical career-graph of the executives beginning from the training period itself.
In the current setting, the training department in the public sector is more of a statutory requirement than an incubation centre, and thus, the training rigmarole, though time consuming, is invariably lackadaisical. So a graduate or a master, as the case may be, starts as a management trainee, who, in the absence of any worthwhile programme to groom him into a manager, picks up some raw managerial stuff by bits and pieces only to imbibe its imperfect craft by fits and starts that is depending upon his own aptitude and initiative.
After such a ritual of one or two years, the freshly minted manager gets absorbed into a mammoth managerial structure in which he is somehow accommodated rather than being functionally positioned therein. With the passage of time, normally three years, comes his eligibility for advancement to the next level and with his own ‘pull’ or that of his juniors in the seniority list, the date with destiny could coincide with that of his eligibility, and happily for him that obliviates any promotional anxiety. Thus, within a span of three or four years, during which time no opportunity is available for mastering the rudiments of the concerned profession, the new recruits, still raw, step onto the management ladder without the wherewithal for a meaningful climb up. Whatever, they would all be truly on course to ascend the whimsical but orderly promotional ladder, rung by rung that is, all the way to the top, limited only by the positions to fill up at each of its ascending rung.
While the management lacks the wherewithal to train the executive during or after the training period or to make him a competent and capable member of the managerial team, the ‘new’ executive, however, observes the ‘old’ system from a sufficiently close range to learn the ways to launch himself on a ‘successful career’ course. And the organization too is bereft of any professional performance appraisal system, during the training, or thereafter, bar boss’s assessment of his subordinates, though supposedly objective in precept, being subject to the frailties of human nature, effectually tends to be subjective in practice. Thus, it is no wonder that the ‘confidential reports’ meant to separate the managerial talent from the mediocre stuff have in effect become either the wills of patronage or the testaments of large-heartedness, and what is worse, the whips of boss’s ego trips on the spirited subordinates.
So, to avoid attracting adverse remarks, it is enough if one takes care not to rub the higher-ups on the wrong side, and thus secure one’s place in the seniority list, the basic requirement to reach the top, that is even as the boss wrath makes fall guys out of some of his colleagues. Also, the ‘upcoming’ executive needn’t be blessed with much IQ to realize that in the prevailing yes-boss culture, the articulate are perceived as rebels, deserving to be derailed on the promotional ladder. Hence, the ‘smart’ guys realize that once on the muster, there is no stopping them on the executive ladder, for the management is loath to exercise its legitimate option of selecting only the right candidates for elevation. That is not all, as the fence sitters, sensing that the public sector ‘fair play’ in its perverted manifestation entails routine promotions, with scant regard for individual merit, aptitude, or disregard even for lack of ethics, tend to join the bandwagon of the insincere.
What is worse, the oppressive system ensures that the truly sincere that won’t kowtow to it are squarely waylaid on the staircase of success. By the way, when did one last hear the maxim, ‘officer like qualities’, much less celebrating those who are endowed with those? It’s thus, the lack of an organizational recognition and reward system for merit and dynamism that tends to extinguish the spark of initiative and induce the sloth of ‘play safe’ in the young ‘managerial’ minds to the detriment of the nation. So to say, the cumulative effect of this patronizing and ‘risk free’ organizational functioning on the public sector’s human development and its financial bottom line is given. Devoid of training, the future bosses for most part are merely guided by their subordinates, who, for their part, exhibit a rule mentality, rather than mould the managerial raw material into decision-making minds. And when it comes to providing direction, instructions, not ideas, are imparted, and owing to the naivety of the bosses, even matters having financial implications are left to the junior staff members.
Understandably, this woolly administrative climate is conducive for avoiding work and evading responsibility, made that much easier by the absence of the delegation of powers, and as a consequence of it, the enterprises function without any commitment and direction, manned as they are by people unattuned to sound work culture. It’s thus, professionalism can only be brought into these organizations by inculcating the right managerial spirit at the very outset with an imaginative and more responsive training programmes.
It has to be appreciated that decision-making is a process that can only be learnt step-by-step, and in the prevailing system, the uninitiated executives, as they progress on the permissive management ladder, are expected to take major decisions that is with inadequate experience at every rung of it. Overwhelmed by the situation, the only decision that they often tend to take is the convenient one of postponement that too after much procrastination.
Given the type of the top management, which is a product of the existing system, any number of reforms directed at it, can at best produce cosmetic changes. Thus it is imperative that the corporate motto should be ‘catch them young’, and to further the same, such systemic methods need to be developed, which enable the freshers to grow up into hardy managers. Herein lies the eventual success of the public sector undertakings, nay, any enterprise for that matter, and for a start, here are a couple of innovations.
Instead of directly inducting the future executives of the organization through the ‘trainee’ route, the successful interviewees should be put into its ‘internship’ channel to see the emergence of the prospective managers for further training. And the training schedule for those that make the grade with the right aptitude should also include exhaustive ‘acquaintance sessions’ in other departments to enable them to gain an overall organizational outlook and a comprehensive managerial perspective from the very beginning of their careers.