Past Event

Minimum Government Maximum Governance

Tuesday, September 16 - Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Brookings India
2nd Floor

No. 6 Dr. Jose P. Rizal Marg
New Delhi, DC
110 021

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

The concept of “Minimum Government Maximum Governance” captures what was perhaps the most alluring slogan of the BJP’s election campaign. Prime Minister Modi has projected himself as a leader who is determined to dramatically improve the effectiveness of the country’s governance mechanisms. But, in order to change things, there must first be an understanding of what the critical problems and constraints are today, and what kinds of solutions may be workable in the Indian context. Brookings India hosted a panel discussion – featuring Prof. Ngaire Woods (Dean of the Blavatnik School, Oxford University), Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta (President, Center for Policy Research), and Prof. Prodipto Ghosh (Distinguished Fellow, TERI) – to facilitate an exchange of thoughts and views to contribute to a broader and deeper understanding of the context in which change has to be brought about, and the kinds of things that might be tried. 

The idea of minimum government and maximum governance is an appealing one as it implies that government will be efficient, and that a smaller bureaucracy with more skilled people will be better than a larger one.  This implication itself points to at least one condition that must be satisfied for small government to be effective – the presence of skilled people, or more generally, the placement of the right person in the right position. The current system is found wanting in this regard, with civil servants often lacking the experience or domain knowledge their positions require.

Policymakers must also have access to rigorous policy research. There is currently a significant shortage of multidisciplinary policy research organizations in India, and civil servants themselves have little time to conduct their own research.

But the existence of and access to such knowledge is not enough unless it constructively informs the policymaking exercise. One of our biggest weaknesses lies in the way such knowledge is utilized by policymakers, or the culture of intellectual negotiation that underpins government policymaking and processes.  The need to appease all constituencies and stakeholders often results in compromises between different recommendations, leading to crucial flaws in policy design. As a consequence, there is a lack of internal integrity of design.

In addition to improving the hiring and placement mechanisms, there is a strong need to create a culture of performance in government – from establishing standards of performance, to measuring, and promoting people based on performance. People in government must be expected and managed to perform, and the process begins with the creation of specific measures of public sector performance.  Specific public sector performance metrics are crucial because the performance of public servants cannot be assessed by the parameters used by the private sector.

Closely linked to the concept of performance management is the debate on the importance of quickness in decision-making. On the one hand, timeliness in taking action is very important, because organizations suffer due to people being risk-averse. Forcing civil servants to make quick decisions serves as a crucial first step in making them take responsibility and holding them accountable for their actions.   But at the same time, there are several reasons that policymaking cannot happen in a time-bound manner; there is a need to consult and deliberate with a multitude of stakeholders, and decisions taken by bureaucrats are open to review by media, civil society, and the legislature. In addition, in the current context, the Prevention of Corruption Act, which defines corrupt and nefarious practices in very stringent terms, acts as a significant deterrent to swift decision-making.

It is also important to note that quickness in decision-making should be seen as only one component – or as mentioned above, the first step – in governance reforms. A more important shift in governance involves moving away from centralization, wide discretion, and the absence of transparency.  The government needs to adapt to the clamor for greater participation, the demand for the government to justify its actions and be accountable, and a tilt in the balance of information and knowledge between government and civil society towards the latter.

Furthermore, a much more profound governance challenge in the current context is the social failure stemming from a misalignment of incentives.  The motivations for the private sector, civil society, and the state have been eroded, leading to a breakdown of the functioning of institutions of self-governance.

Eventually, irrespective of context, governments always have fewer people and less knowledge and expertise than needed to efficiently regulate all parts of society. Consequently, an important aspect for “minimum government” is the need to define what the core functions of the government are – or what it absolutely must do – and thereafter, leveraging government in those areas.

There are however, limits to the concept of minimum government.  For instance, the government cannot abdicate its most important responsibilities, or things that only it can do.  Apart from its crucial service-delivery role, particularly in the areas of healthcare and education, the government must continue to lead the way in framing the challenges, the identity, and the aspirations of the people as a whole.  This is perhaps the government’s most important function as it is the only body that can speak with a singular voice for the collective interests of a nation, particularly one such as India, with its myriad social cleavages.

*Like all products of the Center, this report is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. Brookings India does not hold an institutional view on any subject.

Event Announcement

Brookings India hosted an event on “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”.

Key Issues

  • The concept of minimum government and maximum governance is alluring because it implies that a smaller leaner government with more skilled people will be better than a large bureaucracy. But for this to be true, several other aspects need to be considered.
  • Placement of right people with domain knowledge and experience in the right positions
  • Knowledge and research should be made available to policy-makers, and the cultures of intellectual negotiation must be reformed
  • Need to create a culture of performance, and performance-metrics specific to the public sector
  • Quickness in decision-making is important because it serves as the first step in taking responsibility. But time-bound decision-making is only one aspect of a larger shift in the governance framework.
  • A more profound problem – not restricted to bureaucrats and politicians – is a social failure stemming from the misalignment of incentives, which must be addressed
  • Since government cannot be everywhere, it is crucial to determine what it absolutely must do and subsequently, leverage it in those areas
  • The government cannot abdicate its responsibility to frame the policy discourse, determine the agenda, and frame the aspirations of the people