Extensive Delegation of Responsibility
Australian governments have very few departments. Each of them is extremely large and managed by a single secretary. The Australian Government has 18 departments. The Victorian Government has only 10. These extremely few departments are based on the concept of span of control, which makes for a more coherent and functional government. The Australian cabinet also comprises 18–20 ministers only.
In comparison, the Indian Government has over 50 ministries/ departments, and even the tiny state of Meghalaya maintains about 50 departments! More problematically, there is more than one secretary in many ministries or departments in various governments in India, thus creating more than 100 secretaries per government. If, to this large number we add the rigmarole of principal secretaries, commissioners and secretaries, additional secretaries, joint secretaries, directors, deputy secretaries and under secretaries, then the number of senior executives in India quickly multiplies into the tens of thousands across the country. (Fortunately, the number of secretaries in small states like Meghalaya is fewer, since many hold charge of more than one department.)
The reason why Australia is able to manage with so few departments and senior executives is that, first, these senior executives are far more competent and productive than their Indian counterparts and, second, because they are able to delegate extensively within their departments. This delegation is made possible because secretaries directly recruit individuals who report to them. This first-hand knowledge of the calibre of their direct reports gives them the confidence to leave them alone to perform their jobs; micro-management is not needed. The secretary is able to devote time to strategic thinking and people development since everyone is competent for his or her level.
At professional levels below the executive, there is a solid base of analytical and writing skills in each Australian department. Policy specialists are hired in far greater proportions in Australia than in India. For example, there are over 100 high quality economists in the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance, apart from nearly 100 finance professionals like chartered accountants. Other departments also hire high calibre economists and policy specialists. Each Victorian policy is thus carefully reviewed for compatibility with the principles of the relevant specialization as well as economic principles to ensure the best outcome for the state. In comparison, the state of Assam, where I have also worked, has probably ten modestly skilled economists between its two main Departments of Finance and Planning & Development. A strong base of highly skilled policy specialists gives senior executives in Australia the confidence to delegate far down the chain.
As a result, Australian departments are middle-heavy, unlike in India where they are top-heavy. Most senior executive positions in Australia are clustered at the Director level or lower, i.e. at the operational end. (By no means is a Director a junior position; their responsibility and pay is comparable to that of general managers in large private sector firms). This extensive delegation of responsibility also leads to great agility. Directors, or even Assistant Directors, advised by knowledgeable professionals, are empowered to directly brief Ministers on matters of relatively small policy impact without having to ‘go through’ the secretary. It can therefore take only five to ten minutes for a completed policy briefing that may have taken ten days to prepare, to be delivered to the Minister’s office electronically, followed by the hand delivery of the hard copy with signatures from a couple of relevant officials. And of course there is no peon here! Officers take the signed policy briefings directly to Ministers’ offices. As a result, no paperwork sits for weeks or even months on any officer’s desk as it does in India.
[Note: This is an extract from my book, Breaking Free of Nehru]
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