It's the Big Things That Count

 

10/07/2013 Delhi Development Authority // Photocopy S.O.P.

 

10 people inside the DDA library. The break-down as follows:

(i)             3 Men reading newspapers at long tables. Visitors. My guess is that they are on break from work, but it’s just a guess.

(ii)           3 Front Deskmen. Their work consists of collecting press clippings from the daily papers for DDA library files, files which will pile up and up and up (see picture) but no one will ever read, as evidenced by the second task of the Front Deskmen, which is to manage the Guest Book, in which I am one of only three (!) people to have visited the DDA library in the past ten years, this lending some excitement to my presence in the library. Beyond these (minimal) tasks, there is mostly sitting and eating fried sandwiches. A lot of sitting.

(iii)          1 Files Manager in a small private office. This isn’t his official title, but he oversees the collection of all the press clippings by the Front Deskmen. A squat man with a mustache and (by far) the best English in the office, he is a prime position to act as my ally. He will later decline this position [more below].

(iv)          1 Librarian. She is, predictably, a woman, the first woman I have seen inside of the DDA. Her jobs consists in the endless filing of books, a task that seems like it should have a very definite end, but (she tells me) is in fact a Herculean daily task, making her a very, very busy woman. [Ed. Essence of DDA: busy doing nothing.]

(v)            1 Library Assistant. A young and very nice man who works under the librarian and whose job is much like the Front Deskmen but with the added responsibility of helping the Librarian.

(vi)          1 Library Officer. Head Honchess of the DDA Library. Sits in a well-airconditioned and fluorescently-lit office. Duties (completely, wholly) unclear, and absent often. When in office, she seems to be talking with a friend of hers often, or reading the newspaper, or eating. Sometimes on the phone. 

I am at the DDA Library because I am looking to collect documents that will give some background on the DDA. This is very basic researcher stuff, and I am initially not expecting any particular resistance to my viewing and/or photocopying the material in the office, because this is, after all, what a library is for. That said, it is immediately clear upon my entrance that I have disturbed some deeply entrenched equilibrium—an equilibrium that consists largely of all parties doing close to nothing—but it is yet unclear whether disturbing this equilibrium will work for me (e.g. eager to help me) or against me (e.g. resentful of my desire to do something).

 And now a very strange thing begins to happen. At first, the library staff allows me to poke around, read at will (though still no photocopies). But over time, they begin to retreat into Formal Operating Procedures: by the third or so time that I visit the library, the Librarian begins to demand that I ask the Library Officer just for permission to read the files in the reference section, and more than that, she begins to demand that I sit right in front of her office, in the only un-airconditioned part of the library, at a small desk, so that she can watch me carefully as I look through the documents. The whole process feels increasingly suspicious, and it is in this context that I prepare to do the unthinkable—Ask for photocopies.

 The reason why photocopies are the unthinkable is because no one has ever asked for photocopies at the DDA Library before. And so there is ostensibly no S.O.P. to govern this process, which in the deeply bureaucratic organization of the DDA, feels like free-falling chaos. The response of the Library Staff is telling: they cannot simply allow me to make photocopies, for two main reasons. One is because they are suspicious as hell of me by this point: they don’t understand why I am interested in the DDA, what I am doing in Delhi, &c. despite my best attempts to explain in Hindi that I am an UNDERGRADUATE and this is a PROJECT and, as I explain in Hindi, dhal mai kuch kala nahin hai [this literally translates to “there is nothing black in the dhal,” but is used here as a colloquialism to say, there is nothing suspicious going on here.]. This suspicion is rooted in the fact that, as I explained above, no one comes to the DDA Library ever and so what am I doing there? But it is also rooted in a larger, palpable organization-wide paranoia at the DDA: the bureaucracy is famously opaque, but particularly in the context of India’s current civil society, which has recently seen the implementation of the Right to Information Act, giving the public access to all bureaucratic files within 30 days of request and putting immense pressure on India’s bureaucracy to become (despite its long history of acting otherwise) transparent, which many people in my research tell me has made the DDA stiffen up, lock-jawed and terrified to do anything, because of a fear of litigation down the line or getting mixed up in some corruption court case or being accused by a superior of having done something without the very clear direction to do so. In all of my interviews, I have to work hard to remind over and over again my interviewees that I am just a student and that our interview is just informational. 

The other reason that they Library Staff cannot simply let me make photocopies is even more pathological. Without a direct S.O.P., the Library Staff is visibly groping for some sort of formal procedure. Partly because they want reassurance that they are not doing anything wrong by their superiors (as above) and partly because bureaucrats are simply allergic to doing anything quickly, as it only feels right or proper if there is a long process that is drawn out to acceptably ridiculous timeframes, the Library Staff sends me on a long and upsettingly windy path toward my photocopies, the ever-elusive photocopies.

 [SIDENOTE: This groping for procedure in the face of something new is incredibly fascinating in itself but is also a very potent analogy to my larger research project. The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model of the Kathputli slum rehabilitation, much like my desire to get photocopies, is a very new model. And just as in my process of acquiring photocopies, we can understand the challenges of introducing the PPP just as we might understand the challenges of the DDA Library. As one private developer told me, when asked why the project has been so difficult to implement, “Everyone is taking their sweet time to understand the new kinds of development…I have faith in India, but I think it is going to take a lot of time, and there will be a difficult learning curve.” Here, another research question: How do organizations respond to innovation? How do they shift S.O.P. to greet these changes, or how do they move to reject them?]

 DAY 1:

I approach the Librarian and inquire about the possibility of photocopying a report on the DDA. At first, it’s a direct No. But I persist with a smile. She directs me to the Library Officer, claiming that she has no authority and everything must be approved by the Library Officer.

I visit the Library Officer’s office, but she is busy chatting with her friend. It is close to Lunchtime, which means I am in danger of entering a three-hour time suck, when DDA staff claim that they are incapable of assisting me in any way because it is lunchtime. [This is what really pushed me over the edge with fat, pudgy little Files Manager man, who sent me into a full stress reaction on a later day when, after hours of prodding and begging and running back and forth, he barred me completely from entering the Library, claiming that they shut down for lunchtime, which I knew for a fact was a total lie! This here is another fascinating trend: inventing bureaucratic rules as you go along to justify self-serving action—bureaucracy as weapon.] I poke my head inside, and she tells me to come back after she is done, a vague and distressing command because of impending Lunchtime. So I step outside and bite my fingernails for a moment before entering one more time and asking outright if I could go ahead and make photocopies of a document and I need her permission.

As expected, she says No, a mixture of you-should-have-listened-when-I-said-to-wait and we-never-do-this. Once again, I persist with a smile, and she sort of does some mental math, a very strange calculation where she thinks up some way to Bureaucratize the process of my getting photocopies, because (remember) she cannot just give me an outright Yes. So she tells me that I can get photocopies but only after all of the work in the office is done, because one of the staff members has to get the photocopies on my behalf, because they are very suspicious of me. Weaponry.

I thank her for her permission and return to the Librarian to relay the message. She does not receive me well, and looks at me as if I have just lied to her. So now she has to go to the Library Officer’s office herself to confirm that this permission was given, and I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t just go in the first place. Finally she returns and reluctantly admits that she has given permission but insists that it cannot happen for another few days. This is because there is a lot of work to do at the Library and so no one will be available to get photocopies on my behalf.

Mouth literally ajar, I look toward the Front Deskmen, who are engaged in an activity that can be best described as absolutely nothing i.e., they are sitting at a table, eating fried sandwiches, one of them reading the paper and the other two just chatting. I am getting a little frustrated, so I tell her outright that kuch kam nahin hai, please, please dekhiye [there is no work, please, please look] and she shakes her head No. The Files Manager, whose office is just next door, pops his head in to inquire what is going on. The Librarian explains in contemptuous Hindi about the situation, and the Files Manager just shakes his head, and now they are shaking their heads together.

Mouth still ajar, I beg and beg, working hard to re-stiffen my face into the shape of a smile. Finally, I ask—if I can ask one of the Front Deskmen to do it for me, and they agree, can I please get my photocopies? Here, my brain is in full-on Go Corruption! Mode, and I am already making mental arrangements to bribe one of the Front Deskmen to fetch my photocopies. Jugaad, man—whatever it takes.

After far too long, she acquiesces, and now I am on my way to the Front Desk to pose my query to the 3 Front Deskmen. From two of them, it’s a direct No: they are just too busy to be bothered right now. Lunchtime, they remind is, is quickly approaching. They direct me to the Third, a tall man with no teeth save for a couple of key molars that enable his participation in the consumption of Fried Sandwiches. He agrees with the type of smile of, let’s see how much mileage I can get out of this one.

Problem is: this man has a severely crippled leg [is this the PC terminology? If not, I’m sorry], and so it will be difficult to get my photocopies because (get ready for the biggest revelation of them all) the DDA has no photocopy machine! The only way to get photocopies is to go down from the third floor, out of the front door, down the street to the market, and wait your turn at a small stall to get photocopies. This is a big problem, both because of his crippled leg, which he has to pick up and place on every new stair, and also because this photocopy stall has to service every single visitor the DDA, which means that this Toothless Front Deskman will have to push his way past a horde of people who are thrusting their documents into the small service window at the photocopy stand. [SIDENOTE: this is largely how lines work in India. If you want something done, you must push toward the front and thrust yourself before the service provider. As a person who despises this type of self-serving aggression, this whole process is one big anxiety psycho-freak out, because (i) I am asking for a photocopy of a pretty long document, while all of the others are asking for single- or double-page slips, necessary documentation for their applications for a DDA flat, which is what produces anxiety (ii) my photocopies are for the sake of research, a noble but admittedly privileged activity when compared to the urgency of applying for shelter.]

Still, for Day 1, the Front Deskman agrees to do my bidding, and finally he is off. He will not return for three hours (?!), but at least I can rest assured that he is, in fact, on his way. I feel a mixture of guilt for having sent this disabled man to do photocopies on my behalf, and a sense of indignation that finally these guys are doing something productive and this is what you get when you won’t just let me make the photocopies myself.

 

DAY 2, 3, 4:

            I won’t bore you with all of the dense logistical detail, but suffice it to say that the Library Officer was not in her office for these three days, meaning that I had to cajole the Librarian into letting me call the Library Officer on her cell phone, re-engage in a new process of begging her to let me get photocopies, because she seemed to have forgotten the agreement we made the day before, and then the Librarian had to ceremonially call her back for confirmation of her permission, sometimes causing the Library Officer to change her mind and not grant me permission because she was annoyed that we were calling her so much.

And after—the disabled man was no longer willing to do my Photocopies, despite the fact that I had overpaid him by THREE times, as he had lied boldfaced to me about how much the photocopies would cost. Whatever, but like, come on: I hate this place. Thus I began a whole new process of calling and complaining and imploring &c. to craft a new method for obtaining photocopies. 

All in all, a deeply upsetting, but on reflection, deeply important research experience. If my goal is to understand bureaucracy, this was certainly an in-depth ethnographical exploration.

 

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As far as I can see it, the paradox of bureaucracy is that the historical, academic understanding of bureaucracy understands it as a direct route to efficiency, while the contemporary, popular understanding of bureaucracy views it as its antithesis. 

Here’s Max Weber, original theorist of bureaucracy: “A bureaucracy is capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency…It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability.” 

And on the other side, the Old DMV Joke, which need not be repeated here.

It’s a pretty fascinating, if basic, research question: how did an organizational structure once praised—once feared, revered, respected as modernity par excellence—for its efficiency, transform into its opposite? It is a very important question for us to answer. If private developers and global institutions are today advocating for a shift away from the public sector on the basis of the weaknesses of bureaucracy, it is crucial for us to understand how bureaucracy acquired this desultory reputation. Did something change in its character? Or was something inherently wrong all along, and early theorists were misguided in their portrait of bureaucracy as truly efficient? Is this contemporary portrait an honest one? Or is it constructed by certain interested actors to convince us that we should look beyond state infrastructure for development purposes? 

To answer these, my summer researched has focused on a case study with another guiding research question:

 

            What is happening when the state is doing Nothing?

 

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There has been much scholarship in recent years that has focused on the inverse question—that which happens when the state is doing Something. As in, whom does the state serve in its programs? How does it serve them? &c.

 Many of the most resounding answers to these questions have supported a theoretical model of state action that is loosely based on a sort of post-structuralist Actor Network Theory (ANT). Developed by Michel Callon and Bruno Latour in the ‘80s, this model seeks to deconstruct systems to focus instead on how their constituent “actants” (meaning actors both human and non-human) come together to form the larger network. It is a reaction against systems theories/structuralist theories that describe networks in terms of the larger material and organizational factors that shape the network on a macro-level. The common example is that of the Cell Phone: to describe the technology of the cell phone, we can neither refer solely to its technological components nor refer solely to its social ones. The Cell Phone is the result of technology, for sure, but this technology was itself a result of social patterns that produced the ideas that ultimately drove the production of the technology. In short, ANT aims to destroy determinism, technological and social alike.

 Many state theorists have taken up this post-structuralist view with zeal. They focus their work not on the structural factors that shape the state—allergic to old-style Marxist Materialism and its deterministic claims—but on the contingencies that flow through it. When analyzing the effects of a policy, for example, this theoretical frame would direct our attention to moments where certain actors made choices based on their subjectivities, or to the moments when a file was lost by accident, thus crucially affecting some process down the line, etc. By doing so, these theorists seek to complicate our understanding of the state, doing the important work of disaggregation—the State is not one shiny entity and implementation is not a linear progression from intention-to-policy-to-implementation. These theorists shatter the linear model into a million little parts, and now we can see the insides of our systems, the small points of access and arbitration that take place in the micro-scale.

 My own goal, however, is Re-aggregation. Putting together all of the complex details of ANT-type analysis, I hope to create a holistic portrait of the state, because, more than disaggregation, the process of re-aggregation feels incredibly crucial, allowing us to balance our “contingency” view of state action with a probabilistic understanding of the same. The one flaw that I see with the post-structuralist scholarship is that it fails to see how the micro-processes and contingencies fit together. So, for example, a low-level bureaucrat may have a significant influence in the process of implementation of some state program. But probabilistically, it is his superiors who, beyond the single case of contingency, maintain influence on the provision of services. And all the way up the bureaucratic chain: it is ultimately the courts and the very high-level bureaucrats that play the most significant role in shaping the state. And so it is crucial that we give the appropriate weight to their role, rather than getting caught up in our careful demonstrations that there is, in fact, influence from below.

This is all pretty abstract, so allow me to illustrate my point by using an example from Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape, the preeminent contemporary account of Indian bureaucracy published last year.

His basic question in Red Tape is very similar to mine—Why, given the fact that India’s poor are included in state welfare programs, is the state so bad at helping its poor? His answer is that the state subjects its goal of eradicating poverty to a process of bureaucratization, and that this process ends up “normalizing” its outcomes, despite the fact that these outcomes are not as good as the state has promised. This means that, even as people are dying because of bad bureaucracy, we experience the effects of the state program as “normal” and acceptable. One of the ways that the state producing unsatisfactory outcomes, he argues, is through the arbitrary provision of its services. He gives the example of a local bureaucrat who must assess whether certain applicants are eligible for a state program based on an age cut-off. With little access to formal documentation, the local bureaucrat is left to make estimates for himself. It is thus an arbitrary outcome, confirming the post-structuralist claim that systems are, in fact, made up of people whose subjectivities and contingencies are crucial to program implementation.

 My objections are twofold. First, while he reads this mode of arbitration with great suspicion, one might equally read this bureaucratic process with generosity—while arbitrary provision certainly opens the door to rent-seeking, the “arbitrariness” that we decry here is, in a different view, merely the best that a state can do. As such, arbitrariness by itself cannot explain state failure. In fact, informality and flexibility of certain metrics could equally lead to a more inclusive pattern of service provision, depending on the bureaucrat, as more rather than less people are let into the program on behalf of the generosity of the local bureaucrat. This counter-argument also follows the post-structuralist logic, showing how the poor are dependent on contingencies that are not supposed to exist in a Weberian, systems framework, but I mean it merely to show that we must look elsewhere, further back or deeper into the bureaucratic process to understand how failure comes about.

 When we do so (this is my second objection), we can begin to see—through our probabilistic lens—that there are, in fact, larger, structural factors that are shaping the provision of services and determining the quality of state programs. In Gupta’s pessimistic reading of bureaucracy, we are led to believe that the process of bureaucratization in itself produces negative outcomes with respect to state service of the poor, this through a process of “normalization.” But I think that this reading fails to give enough credit to bureaucracy as an enabling tool; the bureaucracy under Gupta’s microscope is not representative of bureaucracy at large but a specific, unfortunate variant of it. Viewed this way, we can begin to distinguish our larger, structural factors: organizational culture, for example, plays a key role in determining how bureaucrats will interface with the public; incentive structure, another example, is very important for our understanding of how the bureaucracy responds to the introduction of new schemes; and, of course, a lack of performance evaluation and intra-organizational oversight and proper training can all give us important clues as why the state is so bad at doing what it is supposed to do. Organizational structure is perhaps itself most telling: in my own research, for example, the most significant determinant of the success of a DDA program is the initiative brought by upper level management, because the DDA is a highly vertically structured organization, and, therefore, state failures can often be explained by (i) a lack of strong vision and will from the top, or (ii) an inability to retain the strength of an initial push by top management after they have left the organization, which happens often at the DDA, where top management shifts on a regular basis. And these determinants themselves are circumscribed by larger processes: the inability to retain the strength of an initial push by the top is the result of an incentive structure and organizational culture in which no one at the DDA is willing to step forward to “claim” any project as his own, both out of laziness (cultural i.e. why work when no one else is?) and some level of fear (incentives i.e. why work when I might only get in trouble for it later?). Or let’s look at why top management shifts on a regular basis: this is because all of the top management at the DDA is appointed politically, and simultaneously serves a number of other important posts for the Government of India. So (keeping in mind that state success largely depends on strong vision and will from the top) this means that there is often a dearth of strong vision and will at the top of the DDA, both because they are busy and because any vision that they may have is replaced by another vision in just a short few years. And even more important, this modicum of vision is limited by the priorities of the political party to which they are loyal, meaning there is necessarily an upper-bound on how much a certain DDA regime can accomplish.

 This winding and haphazard rant on structural factors is meant as a sort of mathematical proof. For  now we see that, when we zoom back out, the arbitrary provision of care that Gupta decries is itself a third- or fourth-order consequence of the larger, organizational, structural factors that underlie Indian bureaucracy. It’s a complex web of factors, to be sure, but a very crucial one, indeed—top-down, I submit, is as important for explaining the success of bottom-up as bottom-up is important for explaining the success of top-down. And so we have much to gain by focusing our investigative efforts on our understanding of first- and second-order causes of bureaucratic failures.

 

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All of the above thoughts—from ANT to Gupta to my own ramblings—occur to me as I sit twiddling my thumbs in the DDA Library, watching a languorous cricket match between Australia and England alongside 2 Front Deskmen and the Files Manager. It’s not their fault, I think, It’s not their fault they are so slow here. Remember—Structure, Structure, Structure.

 

—David Adler, New Delhi, 21/07/2013