When I decided to move back to India for the CMGGA fellowship, my friends back in France were skeptical of my move to work with such a challenging and complex administration. I remember my supervisor at the UN making this statement, something I’d never forget, “You work with governments and administration to only realize that their efforts are framed in the context of efficiency which narrows down their productivity. If efficiency is becoming the sole purpose of a government, it might as well have lost its sight of why it is there, in the first place”. Their argument for greater efficiency in the public sector at a time of spending reductions and increased pressure on services was obvious, but the importance of efficiency goes beyond saving money. In fact in India, it is true that many of us grew up thinking that the administration lacks good intent and productivity.
It’s been only a little while since I was posted in Ambala, Northern Haryana and my experience of working with the administration has started to break all the myths. Recently, during a personal reflection with my Deputy Commissioner, we realized that when a COVID positive citizen arrives at a hospital’s doorstep, he has no idea of the types of beds and specialized services available or if there are any beds at all in the hospital, in the first place. Prioritizing efficacy over efficiency, we decided on developing a mobile application catering to these missing aspects. When I asked sir, “what is the deadline”, and he responded “Kal”, (not tomorrow but yesterday). It was endearing. In collaboration with the National Informatics Center and the Civil Hospital, Haryana, I got a deadline of 48 hours to strategize and create this application which busted my first myth, ‘the Government work is very slow’. And here comes the surprise power statement which I wasn’t expecting to hear over the course of this year, “Drop everything that you have, use any and all resources possible, hire someone from outside, take all the help you need, and lastly, assuming you have all my approvals, but get this done and get this done right. Take complete charge.” This happens only when your leadership not just understands what the problem is but also knows how critical it is.
The said 48 hours fell on a weekend, which broke my second myth ‘that the government administration barely works weekdays 9 to 5 with a stable income’. I was asked to work this particular weekend and also get everyone concerned to chip in full hours and to submit the detailed report first thing the following Monday morning. The doctors-on-duty COVID staff were on board, but convincing the NIC friends was difficult. However, they rose to the occasion, when the Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) personally made a call to emphasize how urgent & critical this is. This breaks my third myth on ‘you never receive any support in inter-departmental ‘government administration’.
My Additional Deputy Commissioner is a young and dynamic Civil Servant, who broke my fourth myth, ‘it is mandatory to be grey-haired to voice your opinion and to make a difference’. She is a great problem solver with foresight and ensured that during those 48 hours of work and after, she’d be available for solving any problems I’d encounter with the operations and development of the application. She was keen to test the application at regular intervals and give her valuable feedback. This one time when her only question to me was, “Utsavji, what do you think is wrong with the program? Tell me, as a citizen, as a common man, what would be the difficulties you’d face in using the application, can we make it better in any way?” Such was her insights and such was her way of thinking. Remembering this phrase I read somewhere, “the reductions of citizens to customers actually risks breaking the social glue and our sense of solidarity as citizens. If we begin to view government simply as a shop where each of us can go to get something that we need, it can be potentially divisive.”
My fifth myth that was busted- ‘the administration fails at collaboration.’ And my sixth myth ‘The file is still moving around for approvals’. As I mentioned above, I was asked to use all resources possible to get this application made, and made well. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and his team were absolutely welcoming to the idea and dedicated all their resources and records towards the smooth creation of the application. In this regard, I engaged with private vendors, negotiated, and struck a deal with the best one. I created a WhatsApp group with the private players, my ADC, POC from Civil Hospital, and two developers from the NIC who would provide the developer all the support required from the district administration. The vendor was given the best price and his payment was made on time, provided he is ready to make after-sales alterations depending on the feedback received from citizens and other users. Such was the vision of my entire administration, to work tirelessly towards the same goal of perfection.
Our application was launched within two weeks after we started working on the idea by the State Cabinet Minister, Sh Anil Vij and it was a successful event. I had the opportunity to present the application as if it were my baby and answer all the questions he had. I was humbled and impressed by the empowerment and the intention of our district administration to work towards citizen-oriented solutions. To my surprise, the idea was instantly picked up by the minister and my district leadership to scale the application at state. Following the three days of our launch, formal communication was exchanged between the CMO and the Mission Director, National Health Mission (MD-NHM) on scaling the application across the state. This proved that efficiency was not the sole purpose and that if it were, we might as well have lost sight of why it is there, in the first place. To make a productive change, it is critical to find what works than to leverage what’s popular.