Diana Jue-Rajasingh

Refining the Research Methodology: Short-Term vs Long-Term (Structural) Interventions (aka What am I Actually Doing?)

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 19, 2012

Since my research project changed after I stepped foot in India, the methodology and even the outcome that we’re aiming for have been quite hazy to me. I know that our study has to do with public administration, decision-making, and leadership. I know that we’re trying to understand why certain IAS officers take more initiative than others. But then I’m also told that we’re supposed to look at case studies of “effective” public leaders. And then I’m told that we’re supposed to provide recommendations to reform the IAS.

That’s where the disconnect occurs. Sure, we can look at case studies. But in the end, a case study is a one-off example; a single “good” officer is not representative of 5,000 mediocre ones. Case studies are also highly dependent on the individual, and individuals are not replicable. Training would be the best intervention in this case, but this does not affect motives or incentives. This is more a research project on management and leadership, not on public administration.

If we’re proposing systematic reforms, then we must assume that IAS officers are more or less independent agents who make rational choices, usually based on selfish behavior (a totally fair assumption; this is what all economic theory is based on, minus the new behavioral stuff). It is not possible to propose reforms based on case studies. Thus, I do feel like the data collection methods for this project are not conducive to producing the desired conclusions.

However, if we break our project into two parts, then maybe we can be more productive and much more logically organized — at least, more organized in my head. That way, we can formulate two sets of recommendations.

The first set would be short-term interventions that are easily enactable within the current civil service. We can take lessons from the interviews we’ve been doing and from case studies we’ve been (kind of) looking at. I’m still learning, but I do believe that the keys to motivating leaders to take initiative involve mitigating his/her own perceived personal risk while keeping him/her accountable for the actions that he does and, more importantly, does not take. This combats both fear and laziness, which seem to be the big obstacles for officers. Thus, short-term interventions that will address these two major barriers to action could include:

  • Training officers how to communicate with superiors / manage external relationships. In the long-run, it’d be best if IAS officers didn’t have to care so much about this because their positions would be set up differently. But for the time being, this needs to be a skill that IAS officers have. The “successful” ones that we’ve talked with all explain that when they set out to get things done, they always work on getting their superiors onboard first. 
  • Communicating and instilling organizational goals with officers, their juniors, and their organization’s middle management. In theory, a well-defined organizational goal on paper will mitigate perceived risk and speed up the decision-making process, thus getting stuff done faster and more efficiently. However, I’m not sure whether this would actually work in practice. Goals on paper are not the same as a go-ahead from the higher-ups, especially within the current system.
  • Exposing high-level officers to their field’s international best practices and ethics. This was proposed to me by a successful real estate developer whom I chatted with yesterday. Public agencies are run by their leaders, and these leaders, in the current system, more or less set the organizational culture and direction. Thus, if the leaders aren’t up-to-date on best practices and don’t adhere to ethical conduct, then their juniors have nothing to look up to and are pretty much sunk.

The long-term structural interventions are many, many more, and they may face resistance from those within the IAS community (SK Das says this, not just me!). I’m still reading through his book, but he provides a lot of recommendations: decentralizing the service, separating policy creation from policy intervention, evaluating “success” based on results instead of process, systems of accountability for actions taken and not taken, space for innovation (which is relate to risk management; the goal is to seek maximum results instead of minimum risk-taking), lengthening tenure at a single post while emphasizing specialization over generalization, and many, many others that I am personally much more interested in than the short-term interventions.

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