This is my second tranche of comments on Prajapati Trivedi’s article, “Re-Inventing Democratic Constitutions: An Application of New Public Management (NPM) Framework” (published in Journal of Governance & Public Policy, Volume 1, Issue 2, July-December 2011).
Trivedi's article proposes a set of constitutional reforms for India based on the systems thinking he advocates (and which I fully support, in principle).
In this article Trivedi proposes changes to the Westminster system itself, moving it further towards a presidential system. I'm not attracted to such changes. The Westminster system is an excellent compromise between competing democratic alternatives. Its defects (no system is without them) can be readily addressed – as I've elaborated in BFN (and in this blog post).
Systems thinking must focus on understanding incentives. It is possible for a few (relatively) minor changes to address incentive gaps in India, thereby dramatically enhancing the performance of India's democracy.
But the article proved useful for it started a chain of thought which led me to consider further ways to improve the existing system, to those I've outlined in BFN. It soon became apparent that it is possible to embed the desire for performance measurement orientation (which Trivedi brings) into India's existing system, without making any constitutional change.
So what is this improvement?
Trivedi's article proposes that all constitutions should include a Core National Agenda (CNA). An example of CNA (that he cites) would include performance targets against things like:
- equality of incomes
- quality of public services
Trivedi wants these targets to be embedded into the constitution, thus effectively converting the classical social contract into a service contract. In principle this makes sense (after all, the social contract is a contract for security and liberty, which can be seen as a 'service').
The method Trivedi suggests for identifying these service targets is (apparently) ideology-agnostic:
There are many options for deciding the CNA. One promising methodology is to start by inviting recommendations for the list from the members of the constituent assembly. Then, through multiple rounds of voting, eliminate the items on the CNA that get the least votes. This process can be conducted till the assembly arrives at the top ten choices. The same process can be used to determine the weights, measurement criteria and targets. These elements will be sacrosanct for all governments until the specified targets are achieved. Whenever, a target is achieved, the assembly at that time can substitute a new item in the CNA.
I can see merit in the underlying principles behind this proposal, but I suggest this idea should be implemented through an entirely different route – and definitely not through the constitution.
Let me elaborate.
The set of all laws of a nation (including detailed enforceable obligations) constitutes the social contract. At least this is what I mean in my draft manuscript DOF. Of these laws, the most important is the constitution, which sets the tone for all other laws. The importance of a nation's constitution is twofold:
a) it lays down the basic goals of a nation: the defence of our life and liberty; and
b) it lays down the basic institutions of government that will defend our life and liberty.
A good constitution should be focused on life and liberty and should not be cluttered and confusing. As I've suggested in BFN (and as the US constitution does so well), a constitution should be MINIMAL. Its only "core national agenda" should be life and liberty.
Performance management of this "CNA" is supposed to be undertaken by the justice system. We therefore don't need a performance commission (as Trividi proposes). We need a strong judiciary.
I would argue that in a nation where even the fundamentals – life and liberty – are not being defended, India should avoid extending the role of government into anything else. These two are hard enough. Why burden government functionaries (who are fundamentally challenged) with more than they can handle?
Although it appears that Trivedi's CNA is ideology-neutral, it is not. It is founded on an idea that the government has a role beyond life and liberty. That ideology perhaps makes Trivedi suggest the following in his article:
“Whatever the ideologues may think of public enterprise, there is no question that had Nehru not laid the foundation of these ‘temples of modern India,’ we would not have become the manufacturing power that we are.”
I entirely disagree, since Nehru's actions destroyed India's potential, in every possible way.
In this manner we see that even simple things like measurement of "poverty", "equality of incomes", "quality of public services", even "infrastructure" – are normative, not positive, not value-neutral. My ears would perk up if anyone were to even remotely suggest that "equality of incomes" is something that should be embedded into a country's constitution!
This approach is as bad as having Directive Principles of State Policy in India's constitution. And to include "equality of incomes" into the constitution would be worse than Indira Gandhi's conversion of India into a socialist republic. At least people can mean anything when they talk about socialism. But there is no scope for obfuscation when one talks about "equality of income".
By including such things in the constitution we will effectively authorise our governments to undertake all kinds of things that are incompatible with life and liberty, thereby further eroding the basic role and functions of a government.
Let the constitution, therefore, focus ONLY on life and liberty, and let Indian governments first ensure this – something they do so badly and pathetically today.
But beyond this basic issue of life and liberty, there is definitely some scope for further elaboration of policies by a government. Such things are driven by ideology and philosophy. Genuine policy differences can exist among thoughful and well meaning thinkers, and that's the very point of having democracy. So long as a government defends life and liberty (which must be guaranteed by the constitution and sharply enforced by the courts), it should be free to enact any policy it wishes.
While this discussion rules out having a policy-based CNA in India's constitution, I'm attracted to the underlying idea proposed by Trivedi.
We definitely need to enhance India's focus on a performance culture and better incentives. And there is a way to incorporate such things into India's democratic system without pushing it further into socialism.
There are two simple institutional reforms, proposed below, that will not require any change to India's constitution (the only change we do need in the constitution is to shrink it from 300 pages to 10 – as I've outlined in BFN Online Notes).
Let me outline these two institutional reforms below:
Step 1: Political Representative Incentives Commission
The first reform is to create an independent Political Representative Incentives Commission (as I've proposed in BFN). This commission will be charged with research on, and making recommendations on a compensation mechanism for peoples’ representatives that will eliminate all reasonably foreseeable incentives for corruption, or will otherwise promote the freedom of citizens.
In doing so a suitable law could be enacted that creates a system of performance bonuses for all MPs and MLAs, such that (I’m quoting from BFN, hence this is an illustrative proposal):
- For every 1 per cent increase in per capita GDP growth beyond 5 per cent per annum, all our representatives will get a one-off 5 per cent bonus.
- For every 1 per cent permanent reduction – defined as a reduction sustained for two years – in the number of people below the poverty line, MPs and MLAs will get a permanent 1 per cent increase in their base salary. Once the negative income tax system is fully established, the entire reduction in poverty will be incorporated permanently into the base salary.
- For every ten ranks that India rises on a sustained basis of two years in Transparency International rankings, there will be a 5 per cent one-off bonus.
- There will be a permanent 20 per cent increase on base salary upon India’s becoming the world’s least corrupt country for two years in a row.
- The sum of these bonuses will be limited to a total of 50 per cent of the base salary in any given year.
This will allow performance orientation to flow into the compensation of elected representatives.
Step 2: Performance reporting against Election Manifestos by Election Commission
Further, we should extend the tasks given to the Election Commission to ensure a stronger culture of accountability in the Indian system.
Apart from fast tracking criminal court cases against MPs (as I've proposed here), it can be asked to report on the performance of elected political parties against their election manifesto commitments.
And this is where Trivedi's CNA concept comes into its own. Almost all parties make promises about the kinds of things Trivedi has cited (poverty, infrastructure, etc.). Such promises are based on their underlying ideology, and to the extent these commitments to not impinge on life and liberty, governments should be allowed to implement them.
A key gap in the system of accountability today is that we don't have a system to report on the performance of parties against their promises. No doubt the press, the opposition, and citizens in general are monitoring these promises. But this is not done systematically.
Well, how about the Election Commission conducting such performance reporting on an annual basis? It can also, as part of its directives, require all parties to lodge their manifestos with it, and require manifestos to specify performance measures for each commitment. The Election Commission would not suggest WHAT should be included in the manifesto, but whatever is included should have KPIs.
Such a mechanism, consistent with the design of India's democracy, will significantly enhance the performance of its democracy.
We should exhaust all reasonable improvements in the Westminster model based on systems analysis, and only then consider abandoning it for other models.
I believe this idea (of reporting on election manifestos) is strong enough to be included as part of FTI's electoral reforms agenda, currently being drafted. I'd hope that FTI will agree to propose such a reform to India.
I would like to thank Trivedi for sparking this thought process through his article. His systems thinking is crucial, and he is playing an important role in improving governance in India today. I trust he will appreciate why improvements to performance should be consistent with the principles of liberty – and democracy. We should aim to simplify the constitution, and use existing institutions (where possible) to enhance performance orientation.
Indeed, it is quite possible that the Election Commission won't need parliamentary authorisation to implement such reporting process. It could perhaps undertake such reporting right now, without ado. At a minimum – given resource constraints – it could direct parties to report on such performance on their own websites as part of their annual financial reports.
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