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Biometric systems and reforming Government.

The massive fiscal crisis in Greece and impending crisis in Portugal, and Spain got many people thinking. Their situation is very small as compared to the problems and sad state of management of the government in the developing world. All these are symptoms of dysfunctional and irresponsible governance.

Everything with the government is so complex and huge that a brief article will not suffice. It’s not easy to prescribe a simple solution for complex problems that plague society; however here is some food for thought.

The other day, there was an article in the newspapers. It seems that the government was in the process of installing biometric devices in all their offices. Primary reason was to ensure that government employees, teachers etc. attend their offices for the duration for which they are paid.

This raises the question as to; why should the government deem these steps necessary? It makes for an interesting management case study, hence this article.

What are biometric devices? These are equipments that record and manage identities of individuals based on their fingerprints, retina etc. which are unique to each individual. Thus Mr. Prasad cannot send Mr. Joshi to punch in his attendance. Mr. Prasad will have to be physically present himself when he is recorded as having arrived and when he leaves his place of work.

This is a great step forward to contain the menace of people drawing salaries for doing nothing and most often not even showing up for work. As is the case with most organisations, and particularly the government, it will be spending a lot of money and resources to attack symptoms rather than the disease.

The billion rupee question is; why does the government have to resort to such measures where it has to police its own staff?

There are several reasons but mainly they are;
1. Government employees have little or no work at all.
2. Government Staff have work, but it is not organised properly.
3. The staff have no output based performance targets and therefore remain unaccountable
4. The rewards system is not in line with performance.

Recruitment into the government was until very recently quite easy and readily abused by politicians. Used as patronage to reward flunkies, many people are merely on the payroll as a sort of pension and to avail privileges.

Departments are set up at a drop of a hat and the people remain on the government rolls for perpetuity. Once a government department is set up it takes on a life of its own, and almost impossible to shut down. Long after being rendered obsolete, many offices, departments and job positions continue to live on in spite of their being little or no need. Once set up it becomes a stone around the neck of the government and its people as a recurring monthly and annual fixed cost.

The cost of this of course is being borne by ordinary taxpaying citizens. The uncontrolled growth of government will eventually devour nations from within.

Getting people to attend office when they have no work appears to be hazardous. I once read in the lobby of a customer, “if you have nothing to do, don’t do it here”. These folks who have no work will attend their offices and start creating unnecessary work, which translates into more bureaucracy and then more departments in a never ending downward spiral.

I am not proposing that we overlook the absence of people from work and yet get paid. Rather it is essential that their attendance was tied to meaningful work and outputs.
Every government department or office is a fiefdom and exists in its own world. Work flow is rarely seamless between various offices and arms of government. The work procedures is badly designed, outdated and worse never complied with. Getting people to merely attend office is not going to resolve these issues.

Most departments and offices in the government have no or unrelated targets which no one believes in or attempts to achieve. There are no individual, team or departmental targets based on outputs and therefore there is no pressure to show up and perform.
The government in its desire to appear fair treats all staff members equally. Rarely does a good performer get rewarded , but price of any kind of initiative failure bears a very heavy price for the initiator. Doing nothing is the prefered course of action for most government staff.

What are the solutions?
It is easy to blame governments for all our problems. It is the and generally perceived that governments do not function. But what can the citizens do? Here are some solutions;

  1. As a rule government must be as small as it can be and as large as it needs to be.

  2. Maximum decentralisation should occur with the decisions being passed on downwards to the lowest practical and effective level. People nearer the action have a better judgement and can react faster.

  3. All activities need to be planned out so that they are in synchronisation with other programs plans and actions of government’s requirements. This will prevent action of one function negating or obstructing the efforts of another department or office.

  4. It is apparent that all that is managed by the government, various state run agencies and organisations are plagued with inefficiency and ineffectiveness. On the other hand most of which is out of the government's control or interference normally thrives. Hence dismantle nearly all bureaucracy and state run agencies;
    a. Whatever that can be outsourced should be. The government should concentrate on its core competence and areas of responsibility and exit all unrelated activities. Government should primarily pass legislation and enforce laws. In addition governments should provide facilitation for society and its citizens to achieve a higher quality of life in a secure environment.
    b. Government should work more closely with NGO’s (Non-governmental organisations) who are nimble and can achieve a lot more than government departments. This also requires that NGO’s be continuously monitored for performance and effectiveness. NGO’s generally deliver multi fold superior quality service with greater effectiveness than governments. NGO’s normally comprise of citizens often drawn locally committed to a cause, most of them professionally qualified. Being smaller and leaner they are more nimble and effective at much lower costs.

  5. Where not possible to outsource the work to private agencies, government must dismantle their silo type organisation structures. Departments, offices and ministries must have clear objectives. An objective must be specific, time bound, measurable and challenging.

  6. They must have clear roles and responsibilities of each individual, team and department and they must be continuously developed and adapted. Human resources management is marked by its near total absence in government should be introduced and promoted aggressively.

    It is universally known and accepted that most government agencies do not work well if at all. They must facilitate and not do the work themselves. Governments as structured in the world today are increasingly ineffective they are based on a model of governance developed two centuries ago. They represent the maximum inefficiency of human and capital resources.

    Though this article is focussed on the government I doubt that they will take any cognisance of this article. However the issues raised are increasingly applicable to many of my friends and associates whose organisations are growing rapidly. Many of them are falling into the same trap that we observe in big government.


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