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Only tech can’t ensure good governance

by thesquadron.in
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Even after several decades, multiple social inequities persist in India. Welfare programmes often fall short of their intended outcomes. Some commentators blame this on the presence of “algorithmic” thinking in the bureaucracy and the tendency to turn to technology to solve social problems. Others say there is a moral failure of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) due to a flawed system of incentives and penalties.

Let us examine the nature of such algorithmic thinking. First, this mindset has nothing to do with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Whether in engineering or the arts, any degree in the present-day education system is likely to be more a credential, and proof of test-taking ability, than a guarantee of any particular kind of leaning. Having said this, the algorithmic mindset exists, not just in pockets of any particular segment but all sections of society, and among STEM and non-STEM graduates. But it is different from scientific thinking, which observes empirical evidence, questions assumptions, draws inferences, and is sceptical, instead of rushing to conclusions. In contrast, the algorithmic mindset is non-reflexive. It reduces complex social problems to a set of inputs and outputs. The algorithmic mindset is the result of a rote learning-based school education system that does not let students ask questions, reflect independently, inquire into social processes, or think of consequences.

As for technology, when thoughtfully designed, it can address many challenges in governance. It can limit discretion and bias, increase transparency, and reduce inclusion errors. However, it is of limited use in addressing the more serious moral problem of exclusion. The migrant woman worker at the brick kiln; the bedridden child with multiple disabilities; the teenage girl, married at 15 and pregnant at 16 — if these persons are sometimes invisible to a welfare system, it is due to gaps in policy design. Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus once said that welfare programmes fail when we do not have sufficient granular knowledge about people; and when we fail to see every person as an individual with agency.

In treating technology as a panacea, we ignore its tendency to aggregate and centralise. Simultaneously, we have ignored the potential of decentralisation. It is viewed with doubt by some civil servants, who prefer command and control. But it is the real way to regard the person, and reach them where they are. Decentralisation is, in fact, the “first mile” for service delivery rather than the last; it is the level at which citizens and local governments are within arm’s length of each other. Finally, the civil service reflects the values and beliefs of society. During the recent Mumbai floods, a resident tweeted about a clogged manhole. Within hours, the municipal corporation responded with the picture of a man unclogging it with his bare hands. The blockage was removed; but the inhuman practice of manual scavenging didn’t end.

As a society, we must reflect on the choices we make. True, there are no simple solutions to oppressive social structures. And yet, we cannot just turn away from the complex problems — and address only the superficial ones. As for incentives, surely there can be no more meaningful motivation for a civil servant than the work itself. The chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, was once trolled for the specious remark that banks are doing “God’s work”. Cynicism aside, civil service work has a societal purpose, invoked memorably in Mahatma Gandhi’s talisman: To recall the face of the weakest person one has seen while taking any difficult decision; and to ask whether such a decision would restore the person to control over their own life and destiny. It is powerful advice.

What could be the way forward? One answer may be in training. Trainee civil servants are often assigned a laundry list of attachments in different departments. This can distance them from people and their struggles; as the years pass, the distance grows. From this distance, the poor can look like “beneficiaries” — rather than as equals, fellow citizens, and partners in building the nation. However, thoughtful and immersive training can help trainees better understand complex social processes. They can observe what people do, hear what they say, and get a sense of their everyday lives. Public policy calls for deep reserves of empathy. Fieldwork in real-world settings, as one person among many, can teach young civil servants valuable lessons.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS

The views expressed are personal

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