Why the PM is skipping a level

Richa Mishra | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on December 20, 2017

Direct action To realise his vision of New India by 2022 Prime Minister Modi aims to break silos in government

PM Modi took a leaf from management handbooks to interact directly with mid-rung officers this year. Will it lead to more effective governance next year?

Most of us on our way to the meeting were cynical. We were prepared for a monologue,” says a bureaucrat, describing the initial reaction of additional secretaries and joint secretaries when they were called to a ‘skip-level meeting’ with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year.

Second- and third-rung bureaucrats at the Centre were taken by surprise when they got calls from South Block – which houses the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Secretariat – that the Prime Minister would be holding meetings with them in batches of about 90-100.

Conducting ‘skip-level meetings’ is a common corporate practice though little followed in government set-ups till now. The term is used when a CEO bypasses mid-level managers and talks directly to non-managerial employees to get additional insights.

What exactly does Modi hope to gain from these meetings, which last nearly two-and-half hours and are moderated by the Cabinet Secretary? Sometimes a Minister and senior bureaucrats from the PMO/Cabinet Secretariat also attend. Does everyone get a chance to speak? Is it interactive? What is the frequency of such meetings? And, has it changed the approach of the bureaucracy?

Breaking with protocol

An officer who attended the meeting says, “Yes, the PM speaks, but he listens more.” According to him, “There are some bureaucrats who wish to impress the Prime Minister by talking about their work. But, the response from the PM is clear: Do not tell me what you have done. Tell me what we can do.”

There is no fixed frequency of these meetings. In 2016, the PM began to interact with bureaucrats directly when he met Secretaries. But, it’s only this year that he has been doing the skip-level meetings, which has attracted attention.

Apart from the additional secretaries and joint secretaries, Modi has also interacted with around 380 Directors and Deputy Secretaries of various departments and ministries at the Centre, meeting them in four groups. The two-hour-long interactions happened in October.

They spanned a wide gamut of issues ranging from governance, corruption, public enterprises, government e-marketplace, health, education, skill development, agriculture, transportation, national integration, water resources, Swachh Bharat, culture, communication and tourism.

During his meetings with Additional Secretaries and Joint Secretaries too governance took centre-stage, though discussions were also held on social welfare, tribal development, agriculture, horticulture, environment and forests, education, project implementation, urban development and transportation.

Till now Prime Ministers have been accessible only to a certain level of officers. Modi’s supporters are at pains to point out that he does not want a “Yes, Minister” mindset and genuinely wants to understand issues. So, does this accessibility also mean autonomy in decision-making for bureaucrats?

Former IAS officer Vivek Rae, who was also a member of the Seventh Pay Commission, says “brainstorming is a great idea if it promotes lateral thinking and enables new ideas to reach the highest levels of government. The message should also go that free and frank expression is welcome on files.”

Gauging ground reality

However, Modi’s critics argue that this is not really a path-breaking practice as former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi too freely used to meet District Magistrates in all the State. The meeting was popularly called ‘PM-DM Meet’. But, then that was seen more as an exercise to discuss implementation issues at the Panchayat level.

HR strategy expert Hemant Sharma, formerly with Sun Microsystems, says, “This is a good strategy to gather information from people closer to the ground realities. It can provide better insights into the challenges in implementing policies, and the policies can than be tweaked to factor in implementation challenges to make execution more effective.” As he says, “A policy, after all, is only good if it can be well executed to achieve its desired objective “.

But, the crucial question is whether it is yielding any result? On the ground, it appears that things have not changed as officers are still not speaking up. And silos persist. Modi is exhorting the officers to dedicate themselves to the creation of New India by 2022, and has apparently urged the officers to create teams to break silos which can impede the pace of implementation.

In fact, he has also asked the seniormost ministers from each State to hold such meetings with officers from their States.

While there are those who believe that by doing this, Modi has further centralised the governance mechanism where there is just one-man thinking, HR experts say it is no different than in corporate sets-ups where the CEO strategises and others execute.

After all, as the saying goes a leader is a dealer in hope, and the key job of a leader is to create hope.

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Published on December 20, 2017
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