The Year of Implementation

The Economic Times - August 2004

A new year of nationhood. What should the national resolution for the year be? I think that this should be the year when we try very hard to make the Great Implementation Leap. There is awareness, knowledge and discussion, steeped in every pore of this country, on what needs to be done to solve our several problems, and make us totally proud to be Indian, not just proud in parts. Fix infrastructure, ensure that visitors from abroad, especially potential investors, have a great experience at least for the first 72 hours, till they get over their culture shock and biases! Make civic bodies accountable. Get more children to stay in school. Repeal antiquated legislation that was created for a non market driven paradigm. Improve delivery to the end beneficiary of so many existing relief schemes, etc. etc. There are sound and innovative ideas on what to do for each. But practically no ideas on how to "actually get things done".

Every time the question is discussed, the answers are inevitably the same defeatist "Doesn't everybody know" ones. It isn't easy to get things done. Corruption, lack of political will, democracy, non aligned interests of different groups, complexity of India as a country, bureaucratic strangle hold. But this merely answers the question of "what is and why is it so", and not "how can we make it so". Also it doesn't throw any real light on why it isn't happening. Do we have a defective cultural gene that needs to be fixed? Or as Jeffrey Sachs, at a recent meeting in Mumbai with Columbia Alumni, said, is the money we spend on addressing a given problem below a certain critical mass required for implementation to happen?

Also, here's what doesn't add up. We have hundreds of successfully implemented, large scale success stories in the area of public good, be it agriculture extension work or immunization, or civic bodies functioning, or citizens taking charge of their neighbourhoods and making civic bodies function well, or building roads or achieving literacy leaps. And hundreds of thousands of smaller scale success stories. How do we spread the execution success of these? As Amartya Sen wrote, India has much to learn from India itself.

I think for a few years we should temporarily suspend public worship at the altar of innovation, and shift to the altar of implementation. A young management graduate I know, who runs an NGO, says that he has instituted a fine in his organisation for anyone who comes up with yet another idea. There were plenty of good ideas already, waiting to happen! For this year, lets not even think of the big, new, expensive stuff. Let's just implement all the small stuff, where ideas exist and where energy and will, more than money, is key for success. Making sure that the five airports that handle the bulk of international arrivals have "first world" decor and have clean loos, that municipal schools with budgets, have teachers. That garbage is cleared from the streets the way it is supposed to.

Here's a first stage 'modest' objective. Forget the grand plan, forget aiming for ultimate absolution. Let us focus on figuring out what the ten steps are to get a better bang for the bucks we are already spending, and to transplant the bang that is already happening in different areas, in different pockets of the country. Maybe there is a case for putting together a body of practical knowledge, a sort of "best practices" guide of the necessary and sufficient conditions and the right sequence of things needed to make implementation happen. Can we spend the next year researching the "how to get implementation to happen" issue? All organizations that do research, be it a Mc Kinsey or a BCG or any of the higher education institutes or research institutes focus on studying all the success stories, and drawing lessons from them? How did the Green Revolution and Operation Flood happen? How did Mr Seshan clean up electioneering? How indeed do we have extraordinary implementation of elections in a country with a billion people? Can corporate sector multi level distribution organization models be applied to create citizen groups which can demand accountability from civic bodies? What is the best process to get "political will" into politicians?

Maybe the only PhDs we should work on for a while is in the Science of Implementation - whether in management schools or engineering schools or social science schools. Isn't that an oxymoron? A PhD on implementation? As silly as a strategy consultant writing about implementation! But maybe the answer lies in scientifically discovering why we generally don't manage to do, and why we sometimes manage to do, and do excellently. And if we had this body of soundly created knowledge, and widely disseminated it, would it improve the chances of more things getting done, more often, in more arenas? Maybe the issue isn't "innovation OR implementation", the way I had characterized it earlier. Maybe it is in designing "innovative implementation", so that things happen, and different interest groups who have different agendas actually come together and work together. Maybe the answer is in creating a 'customer driven" society. The voter is educated on how to push for implementation on a continuous basis, rather than vote out the local MP or political party for no delivery, once every five years.

Can all reputed bodies have one serious "Implementation" seminar where succesful implementation cases are shared and dissected and knowledge about what works, extracted? Can each IIM create a centre for implementation studies and do some serious research in the next one year? Can McKinsey, BCG etc draw up best practices for "getting things done", not drawn from America or China (because we are "like that only") but distilled from successful Indian experiences? Finally, can we teach it in schools, so that at least the new generation can "get it done", if we decide we can't?