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Everyone is replaceable in government and things always go on
Navigating a depersonalized government & its resilience to individual turn-over and change
Sarkari notings on technology, public policy, data and working in the Indian government
At the first government department I worked, I was lucky to have stumbled upon Mr X. He welcomed me into operations, mentored me and helped me transition into government. He was extremely passionate about the work he did and went above and beyond and get things done often at the expense of his work and displeasure of his family.
A few months into the work, I heard that he was leaving the department. I was heart broken. I thought the department would never be the same and the government program will actually suffer.
"Everyone is replaceable and things always go on" I was assured by veterans in the department.
And things did go on. The government program continued to deliver and nothing broke. While the person absolutely drove the task he was assigned at the department, when he left things continued to happen. Years later, having seen multiple churns in the government, I still don't understand this dichotomy. At the micro level, I know the person was making a difference in the everyday, at a macro-level their absence didn't leave a hole and things continued to function.
How can the absence of someone apparently important have no noticeable difference in government?
I have a few theories:
Government is resilient and depersonalized
This would center the "systems" and "processes" in government and say that particular individuals don't matter to the extent imagined. You can imagine this to be by design in a system where people keep getting transferred and individual people shouldn't be wielding too much power anyway. Plus there are so many stakeholders in government (centre, state, districts, blocks, private players etc) that ability to affect change per stakeholder is limited irrespective of position in hierarchy. Governments by-design make people cogs in larger machines, replaceable and depersonalized.
But, Mr X did bring in his own flavor and style of working. Theorizing aside, I did see with me own eyes that work happened under him, that he cared, he followed up and got the processes mentioned above completed with quality. But these things aren't measurable so easily. The fact that he maintained good relations with the state counterparts, had a cordial work environment and mentored his juniors, got bureaucratic blockages fixed etc can't be measured in broad KPIs at a national level. While, these things did have an impact, they weren't measurable or probably lost in the larger KPIs (Number of Candidates Trained, Number of KMs road built etc). So when Mr X left, larger KPIs remained more or less untouched (or appeared so) and things did go on and people moved on. This also begs us to think about the incentives in government? If you aren’t moving big number or launching new things, how will you be remembered? There is no remembrance in maintaining the system and keeping the cogs well oiled. This may help us understand the appeal of launching new app, road projects, projects, policies or schemes while steering clear from brownfield maintenance.
But this conclusion that its hard for an individual to affect change in government and invisibility of important yet broader KPI agnostic work is a little disappointing. If individuals can't impact the big picture of government, I've been telling myself lies for the time I've spent in the government or to the people I've tried to hire.
I think it is both humbling and relieving. Humbling because its very important to know your place. One needn't overestimate the impact they've had individually. Yes, it takes an entire village to get anything done but also the whole system minus you is still pretty much the same system. This doesn’t mean the work you do isn’t important. No job is small, there is merit in keeping things running. Even if you are a cog, you can be a cog that cares. "Relieving" because it takes off the burden. Things have been like this for a long time, they'll continue to be like this for a long time. You can try to leave your imprint, maybe it'll work and maybe it won't. But, I shouldn't take the outcomes personally.
I would like to believe that the individual conversations and projects people have worked on in the government have had an impact. Did those changes radically change how governments operate, not at all. And I am glad, I don't think individuals should be able to affect radical changes in government so easily. Things are slow for a reason. I think the problem isn’t importance of work but rather attribution. I think the work we do and conversations we start are passed on. You build a foundation, or you take someone’s work, you build over it and you pass it on. But if you are seeking clear attribution to impact, it will be a disappointing ride. I think the objective isn’t to stand on the shoulders of giants, there are few anyway. It is less glamourous. It is to pass the baton on, from one cog to another, hoping against hope that you are progressing in the right direction.