- Ashwin Mahesh
Carpenters can't fix your leaks
If there's a leak in the water line in your building, you'll call the plumber. You won't call the carpenter and hope that by a combination of luck, brute force, learning-on-the-job, prayer, etc. he'll somehow get the job done. But when it comes to governance, we don't use this basic filter. We put the wrong people in charge of problem solving, and endlessly debate why they should be nonetheless able to solve them. They can't. The sooner we admit it the better.
Structure matters. The internal capacity of organisations makes a difference. Being alert to larger trends and learning from them is necessary. Being able to take others along in collaborations is important. And, ironically and in contrast to what we think, power doesn't matter nearly as much as some of these other things.
Think about it. Our political leaders have always been 'powerful'. And yet we find ourselves in the lowest quartile of global rankings of nations in almost everything. We've been telling ourselves that this is because those in power are busy chasing their private goals instead of saving the public. That's partly true. But it's equally true that power itself is not a major determinant of good outcomes.
Back to the plumber-carpenter analogy, and structure. When it comes to sprawling urban areas of the sort that we are now seeing, there are two levels of governance that are important - the metropolitan one is important for planning, and the neighbourhood one is important for participation. The other two levels - the municipal one and the state government - are less important.
And yet, virtually all the authority, the funds and the manpower for tackling urban challenges is with those two !!
We've really called the carpenter to fix the leak. And when the leaks get bigger, we shout for the carpenter, hoping he'll hear us better, and do something. Anything. But he's a carpenter, and simply not suited for the job. That's why, apart from making high level promises of action, he doesn't take steps to actually crack those problems. No amount of trying by him will help. Moreover, he knows quite well he's a carpenter. We should remember it too.