The riddle of rationalisation

MEKHALA KRISHNAMURTHY

THIS past October, the Ministry of Railways ordered the closure of the Central Organisation for Modernisation of Workshops (COFMOW) effective 1 December 2022. The decision fell in line with the recommendation made by the Principal Economic Advisor, Ministry of Finance on ‘Rationalisation of Govern-ment Bodies’ and was duly approved by the Railway Board.

Established in 1979, COFMOW was set up to serve as a ‘centre of excellence’ for the procurement of modern and advanced machine tools, build ‘state of the art’ rolling stock maintenance, and modernise production units and workshops across the Indian Railways. In news coverage of COFMOW’s imminent closure, it was reported that over the decades, the organisation had built specialisation in procuring complex machines with the required institutional knowledge to determine prices and the technical soundness and compatibility of modern machinery.

According to some officials, COFMOW’s expertise in this area was such that other government entities often sought its inputs and support for their own procurement needs. The decision to shut it down, however, reflected a view that it was one among the myriad, acronymous government bodies that had now outlived their utility and could be safely dispensed with, shedding institutional flab.1

A similarly brief and confusing set of news reports had accompanied the instantaneous dissolution of the All India Handloom Board and the All India Handicrafts Board in July and August 2020, respectively. In the midst of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the run up to National Handloom Day on 7 August, the orders appeared unexpected. But the Ministry of Textiles stated that the decision was part of a ‘systematic rationalisation of government bodies in consonance with Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.’

The reactions carried in the media varied. A lament at the loss, seven decades on, of the ‘only official forum, however watered down, where the voices and views of weavers and craftspeople could be expressed directly.’2 An appeal that the largely inert and dysfunctional status of the boards over time was cause for their revival rather than abolition. The view that given their ineffectiveness, their closure would have little to no consequence. And the rationale that their removal would in fact rid the system of excessive political patronage, interference, and intermediation, that the necessary work would be better done through field officers, while a ‘new portal’ for handlooms would now provide all relevant information regarding schemes and exhibitions.

Later that year, in December 2020, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to wind up four distinct state-funded film units – the Films Division, the National Film Archive of India, Children’s Film Society of India, and the Directorate of Film Festivals – and merge them with the state-owned, for-profit National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). The stated goals of the merger were ‘convergence of activities and resources and better coordination, thereby ensuring synergy and efficiency’ in meeting organisational mandates, while avoiding duplication. Yet, the decision generated deep unease. ‘As custodians of the national cinematic heritage,’ it was pointed out that each of the four film units performed ‘discrete and specialised functions, all in the public interest.’3

At stake is only the entire ‘archival history of this country on film’ and the highly specialised knowledge and skills its collection and preservation entails. Moreover, many filmmakers fear that the original public purpose held by each unique film unit is now at risk of being overwritten by the NFDC’s commercial imperatives and that the government would next move towards monetising the assets on which these autonomous public institutions had been built. In a twist that connects these recent exercises in rationalisation, the new head of the NFDC, now in charge of running all the merged public film units, is a 1999-batch officer of the Indian Railway Stores Services (IRSS).

What is a reasonable response to rationalisation? As someone with no particular expertise on the Indian railways, handloom, or film, I find that I am not in a position to offer a judgement on the diverse and specific decisions described above. Yet, as a citizen, and a student of the Indian state, I am troubled by the sense of ambivalence and anxiety I feel every time I come across news reports announcing such decisions. Casually alerted to the impending closure of government bodies that we never knew existed or know too little about, one can’t help but wonder whether this is more of a trivia quiz or a question of general knowledge in that drab and dreaded category: the life and times of the Indian state. 

On the one hand, when it comes to the work of government, the rationalisation of public bodies is a necessary and continuous process, invariably sensitive but clearly important to take up from time to time. On the other hand, each instance seems to be entangled in conflicting narratives of profound institutional purpose and dire institutional perversity, leaving one confused about the right course of reform action.

More generally, given the multiple, competing interests that are at play in such long, contextual and idiosyncratic institutional and organisational histories, all acts of public sector rationalisation, even the relatively transparent ones, seem to carry an air of the insidious about them.
But, underlying all of this, the real source of anxiety, when it strikes you, is the realisation that one knows so
little about what it is that all these government bodies actually do. Even worse, there’s a sinking suspicion that one is not alone in our ignorance, and yet that there is no real impetus to pay closer attention to what is being done – and undone – in the meanwhile.

In the United States of America, in recent times, it seems to have taken a presidential streak of wilful ignorance and reckless indifference to bring to the surface of public consciousness a modicum of recognition of the routine work of government agencies and employees, and why  it matters. In his book The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis demonstrates this vividly by talking to the public administrators who had prepared carefully and copiously for a presidential transition that the Trump team decided it didn’t really need to show up for. This was, if one can even use the term, ‘rationalisation’ by sheer disdain, followed by numerous attempts to swing a sledgehammer across the U.S. administrative state.

In response to this ‘Trumpian impulse – the desire not to know,’ Lewis dives into three US government departments that he thought would be among the least interesting: Energy, Agriculture, and the curiously named Department of Commerce (forbidden by law from engaging in business, but housing, among various entities, the US Census, the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, which contains a massive trove of wildly useful weather data.)

As he unpacks acronym after acronym, one gets a whirlwind tour of what these obscure yet vital government bodies and the human beings working inside them actually do, especially when it comes to risks that no one else is alive to, lives and livelihoods that don’t figure on anyone else’s agendas or business plans, or research and experimentation that is yet to prove its value. This is government work that had long remained invisible. It is also the sort of thing that was often consciously unacknowledged by politicians and businessmen who didn’t want it to be known that they relied on federal government assistance to pull off their entrepreneurial feats. Now, under Trump, much of this was viewed as entirely dispensable.

Take Art Allen, of the book’s afterword, for instance, one of the lone oceanographers in the US Coast Guard Office of Search and Rescue, who spent long years studying the ‘drift’ of scores of objects so that better searches may be designed more quickly to locate those lost at sea. His treatise on the subject, Review of Leeway, became an essential resource for coast guards in training, and his innovations in air-sea rescue have saved countless lives in the US and in other countries around the world. Yet, along with tens of thousands of government employees, Art was not only classified an inessential worker during the government shutdown in 2018, there were also no signs of the appointment of his successor when he eventually retired.

For Lewis, then, the ‘fifth risk’ stands for those less detectable, systemic risks: precisely the risks we find it hardest to imagine, not the one’s that we see most clearly and fear most commonly. ‘It is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.’4 

Another term that illuminates the routine, socio-technical, systemic work of complex public organisations is Dead Reckoning, the title of an extraordinary sociological history of air traffic control in the United States by the sociologist Diane Vaughan. ‘Dead reckoning is about foresight: predicting the position of objects in space and time by deduction, without benefit of direct observation or direct evidence.’5

It is the interpretative, navigational work that air traffic controllers who are part of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) do every day and is a result of the shared ways of thinking, being and doing that enables them to coordinate effectively, interacting with co-workers and technological devices in the same room and across physical and social space. This is what made it possible for air traffic controllers located in 650 facilities across the country to clear the skies of over 4000 airplanes in a little over two hours in the immediate aftermath of the unprecedented events on the morning of 11 September 2001.

However, as Vaughan, who has studied the life course of the system of air traffic control over time observes, by 2017 ‘the importance of this cultural system of knowledge to the work of controllers was confirmed by its absence.’ At that time, as a result of the shut down of the FAA Academy, the streamlining of hiring and expedited training, and the assignment of inexperienced personnel to complex airspaces, the new controllers ‘could learn the skills, but they struggled to acquire the necessary level of expertise.’

Yet, as she also observes, thanks to the visible efforts of supervisors, support staff, trainers and senior controllers to compensate for the losses and continue to pass knowledge on, the air traffic control system was still able to maintain its ‘resilience, reliability, and redundancy,’ improvising tools of repair following periods of damage and decline. In doing so, the system demonstrated its persistence, and maintains, for now, air traffic control’s impressive safety record for commercial aviation.

‘We can think of all organisational systems as engaged in dead reckoning’, Vaughan suggests, ‘preoccupied with anticipating their own future position in social space and time in relation to other organisations by deduction, without benefit of direct observation or direct evidence.’6 Complex organisational systems are in a constant state of movement, shaped and driven by temporal concerns – of history, the present and the future – and react and respond to the actions and movements of others in a dynamic organisational field. Among these forces, organisations will inevitably have to react to the external pressures of rationalisation as they compete for scarce resources and establish and reestablish their legitimacy against a normative set of expectations of achievement.

These expectations also change over time as hard-won political and social consensuses shift and are renegotiated. Some public organisations find greater cover, while others face greater exposure to harsh conditions. But, like Art Allen’s objects, organisations also drift from their purpose in different ways and at different speeds, and some may also be better prepared to strategise and fight for survival for longer than others, before they come to the point of sinking. Against the impulse to rationalise, do we instead need better designed search and rescues for public organisations cast out, overboard, and adrift at sea. And when do you give them up for lost?

To return to the closure of COFMOW in light of the ‘fifth risk’, is this a case where the organisation has served
its purpose, where the task of modernisation of railway production units and workshops is now complete, and technical proficiencies in procuring advanced machinery and rolling stock maintenance welldistributed within the railways administration such that a specialist body is now no longer required? Or are we at risk of losing knowledge and expertise, built over decades, in complex technology assessment for railways operating in our conditions and meeting our requirements? Are we, to quote Lewis, without recognising it, ‘ceasing to lay the groundwork’ that is needed to, quite literally, keep the trains running on time, and safely now and in the future?

Similar questions about specialist functions and technical capacity are also raised in the case of the public film units and the collection and preservation of cinematic archives
and cinematic heritage. Moreover, although trains and films may seem easy to contrast, for India, both are powerful examples of the long and emotive histories of public institutions and nation-building. Acts of public sector rationalisation are never bereft of ideology and therefore rationalisation based on narrow conceptions of public utility and value, or determinations of the role of the state based on market failure, are, at best, appropriately applied to think about a limited range of state work, and even there fail to account fully for social and political considerations that people and politicians, take seriously.

Handicrafts and handloom, of course, are also deeply interwoven into the institutional life and work of nationbuilding, and of state, science, technology and economy. But the debate on the status and functioning of the All India Handloom Board is perhaps a good illustration of the many, early post-independence institutional experiments, established with ideals of democracy and deliberation and a faith, though not without fear, of a catalytic and enabling role for the Indian state in building up economy and society through community development, local industry and welfare.

It has been argued that the imagination of institutions at the time was less heavy-handed and more facilitative than one gives it credit for, especially given the long and sordid legacy of licensing and state controls that followed.7 But whatever the case, in most instances, one simply cannot defend their institutional pasts at the hands of political and intellectual elites, old and new, who severely compromised their functioning over time. It seems bitterly ironic that public institutions that were consciously built to undo colonial modes of governance and dominance so routinely turned into the institutional grounds for pretty political and administrative empire building within the Indian state at all levels.

Even so, will their closure relocate and revive spaces for representation and deliberation elsewhere, or will the arguments against political interference and patronage leave us with animated virtual portals but with no actual voice recognition capacities or real platforms for the expression of diverse and shared interests, especially in sectors composed of the largely informal and smallscale?

Without defending the status quo, we must also understand how many of our deeply defunct and dysfunctional organisations are in this condition due to the overbearing presence of the state or have in fact remained ineffective and locally entrenched precisely because of the state’s premature absence.

In this regard, in reading the recent literature and debates about state capacity and public administration in the U.S. and in India, one is immediately struck both by the common effort at myth busting, but the exactly opposite direction that this takes in trying to fight for the state and for building state capacity. For a country famous for its deep, almost foundational aversion to government, it always comes as something of a surprise to see how much government the U.S. has actually built up and how much has managed to persist, despite repeated efforts at erosion and dismantlement.

As the comedian Adam Conover points out at the start of his new Netflix show, tellingly titled the ‘G word’, Americans may love to hate government, but one in 16 American workers is employed by the federal government – and altogether governments in the U.S. employ approximately 16 per cent of all Americans with jobs. In contrast, based on published data, that figure – the share of government employment to total employment – is only 4.6 per cent in India8, although the state remains by far the largest formal sector employer, and the dream, and overwhelmingly unsuccessful pursuit of the government job continue to consume millions of youthful years across the country.

Against the myth of the bloated Indian bureaucracy, it is actually the remarkable ‘thinness’ of the state at all levels that we need to acknowledge, especially where it is urgently needed for both better, more substantive policymaking and deeper, more responsive service delivery. In this context, we have a long record of rationalisation by neglect and via vacancies, which now makes right-sizing a deeply complex technical, fiscal, administrative, political and social problem.

Finally, if the myth about the numerical strength of the bureaucracy is about being thin and understaffed, rather than bloated and idle, within institutions and organisations of the Indian state, there is a serious problem of having slowly hollowed out technical knowledge and skill, rather than deepening and expanding it. More than the numbers, it is here in
the loss of public institutions and ecosystems of knowledge and innovation across sectors and fields that we are most likely ‘to never learn what might have eventually saved us.’

In closing, perhaps independent yet credibly embedded and rigorous institutional and organisational histories and ethnographies, of which we have all too few, may just have a greater role to play than we may think, both for governments and for citizens. Done well, they might just about adequately capture and convey the depth of institutional work that has been done and undone, lost and recovered, over the life course of these vital and mundane public organisations, shaped by myriad external forces, relationships and interactions, and rife with contingency.

In their existence, these somewhat tedious and idiosyncratically detailed studies may serve in time as acts of institutional witnessing, of unusual value especially when organisational memories fray and when new reforms and exercises in rationalisation might be ready to learn from past experiences of failure and of success. For the public, they are contributions to a library, archive, and record of the work of government that we should have paid some attention to and must know something more about going forward. At a time when the deepest problems of governance seem to arise from failure of public imagination, who knows?: the antidote might just lie in delving a little deeper into the surprisingly invigorating inner life of government, where we can be sure that fact is almost always stranger than fiction.

Footnotes:

1. Avishek Dastidar, “‘Outlived Utility’: 4-Decade-Old Railways Unit Specialising in Procurement to Down Shutters’, The Indian Express, 19 October 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/outlived-utility-4-decade-old-railways-unit-special
ising-in-procurement-to-down-shutters-8217048/

2. Divya A, ‘What Does the Dissolution of the All India Handloom Board Mean for the Industry?’ The Indian Express, 8 August 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/art-and-culture/what-does-the-dissolution-of-the-all-india-handloom-board-mean-for-the-
industry-ministry-of-textiles-6545819/

3. Sudipto Sarkar, ‘Saving India’s History: Archive Merger Poses Numerous Problems’, Documentary Magazine, 18 August 2022, https://www.documentary.org/feature/saving-indias-history-archive-merger-poses-numerous-problems

4. Michael Lewis, The Fifth Risk. Penguin Books, UK, 2019, p. 76.

5. Diane Vaughan, Dead Reckoning: Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 3. My thanks to Gokulnath Govindan for sharing this book with me and for numerous references and insights on public institutions and public workers more generally.

6. Ibid., p. 567

7. See, for instance, Taylor C. Sherman, Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2022.

8. T.V. Somanathan and Gulzar Natarajan, State Capability in India. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2022, pp. 97-98.