24 Aug 2021 12:58 IST

Compassion, empathy have more impact than qualifications: FinMin PTR

‘Public administration needs a lot more professionalism,’ says Palanivel Thiaga Rajan at IIMB conference.

Speaking at the 16th International Conference on Public Policy and Management, hosted by the Centre for Public Policy, IIM Bangalore, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan (PTR), discussed the complexity of administering public policies. “We need a lot more investment and professionalism in the area of governance,” he said.

Making data-driven decisions

Stepping back to the time he forayed into public administration from the world of international banking, PTR said, he had assumed that running the government would mean you have access to performance data, institutional memory, and infrastructure/ systems. “I took institutional knowledge/ memory for granted, but I got the biggest shock when I assumed office. In administration, we don’t have the continuity or institutional knowledge/ memory that a simple small business would have built into it.” The bureaucracy has a direct connection with ministers, and there is adequate continuity in administration as they are rotated, he added.

“The ministers and the bureaucrats keep changing. The continuity happens only below the cadre of IAS officers — who are rarely in direct contact with the ministers. Adding an additional layer to this complexity is the fact that there is no efficient data, dashboard, record keeping, or electronic infrastructure. The net result is a system in constant flux.”

“Another part of the problem is the proliferation of boards, corporations, agencies, and entities, created by politicians who are searching for short-term solutions, or a relatively quick and easy way to leave a legacy, without backing up these entities with adequate management capabilities or adequate infrastructure. This results in the failure of governance, poor performance, and poor explanation to the people, who then begin to feel excluded and alienated from the growth story.”

Utilising resources

PTR said he sees across the world an increase in anti-science and anti-intellectual mindset. “When there is a lack of governance, the easiest thing for politicians to be is to be populist. But, the time has come to understand the complexity in policy administration and fix it through the application of data and communications technology, among other things.”

On the need to rethink and reimagine the use of resources, he said, using the example of land, “Land is a huge, under-utilised asset in most states and the lack of land banks is a big barrier to industrial growth.” Pointing to that, he said, there was no need for huge tracts of land to be allotted for official housing for government officers and ministers in prime parts of a city.

Need for soft skills

On the subject of taxation, he said, the only lever for a socialist or development-oriented country is direct taxes, which can be progressive. “There should be a devolution of direct taxes to the states.”

On the skill sets that he, with his education and exposure brings to public policy and administration, he said, “Compassion, empathy, and an open mind were of greater importance and had more impact than qualifications, technical skills, or experience. With the latter in place, any administrator can enhance their productivity and effectiveness by taking inputs from the top specialists in every field before you make your decisions.” We have begun the process of engaging experienced specialists in every field and paid interns from law schools, management schools and graduate schools to bring in fresh ideas, he added.