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Sunday, February 28, 2016

The travails of a public sector chief

My stints with three public sector organizations, spanning almost a decade have made me experienced enough if not exactly wiser. Reinforced I am definitely with the thought that PSU’s have an inherent strength that other commercial organizations devoid of governmental backing apparently lack, yet the thought that if left free and with an absolute clarity of goal and purpose, conquering the skies would indeed be a child’s play always lurks at the back of the mind.

Very early forties is a fairly young age to be a public sector chief but that is what I was when asked to take over the reins of the mammoth tourism conglomerate, the Indian Tourism Development Corporation. Faced with a loss making entity on one hand and a system hell bent on getting rid of commercial entities from its fold, the job on hand was definitely not an easy one. Yet gaping mouths is what we encountered when the entire team rose as a goliath to rid the entity of its loss making traits. The spectacular growth, almost impossible to achieve even in the best of the private sectors left almost everyone speechless. And then I paid the price.

Then came the three stints with the tourism major of the wonderful state of Madhya Pradesh. While the state rose over all others in its successful quest for being the numero uno, the rapid turnaround of the commercial properties, and there were many, surprised almost everyone including myself. The ferocity with which the men (and women) of the state tourism development corporation shrugged off the cloak of ignominy and inefficiency made even the private sector speechless. Ofcourse the proactive support of the entire state machinery made the job easier, yet the fact remains that what really happened was our dipping into the inner strengths of the public sector that was almost given up as an also ran.

And now the third and the most challenging, the national carrier that also appears keen to shrug away its cloak of years of rot and neglect. It is now also certain that this entity would soon surge ahead of all its competitors in the not so distant future.

Towards the end of all my postings, I am often asked to put in place systems that would last forever and in the process enable the organization to keep its head above water perpetually and one always remains at pains to explain that such a system is not yet born, nor it shall ever for leadership is a role that can never be substituted by systems or inanimate objects. Yet the expectation of utopia remains.

Yet some stability can be brought about in the functioning of the public sector undertakings only if the dragnet of vigilance, audit and complex processes in the garb of transparency are loosened. The fear of committing a mistake and then getting mauled by the machinery is what keeps most of the public sector mandarins away from the path of decision making and even bringing clarity in their desires. And if decisions are not made in a commercial organization, or if safe play is always resorted to, the outcome can be easily fathomed by even a grocery shop owner.

Why performance or the end result alone should not be a criterion to judge an organization or its mandarins is what amazes me. Why even petty decisions or acts are microscopically examined without a speck of a concern for the overall performance is beyond comprehension especially for those whose primary concern remains overall growth and results. And finally why should one’s actions be subject to examination by someone who may be less competent, less honest and less committed really foxes me.

While beginning my career, the professor of finance at the staff college professed the canons of financial propriety, the foremost of which was – spend government money as if it is your own. And since then I have been wondering why a tender process has to be initiated for purchasing a sofa for the office whereas one simply makes the best buy off the shelf for a requirement at home.

As long as our focus remains on the process coupled with a thought process that everyone is dishonest unless proven otherwise, we shall remain where we are and shall keep on cursing all public organizations. The focus has to firmly shift to delivery if we do not desire to perish. Mere utterance of words “Perform or Perish” will never be enough.