October 31, 2012

Who Needs Holidays ?

I need holidays and so does everyone else but do organisations need holidays ? Do the railways shut down for the holidays ? Do electricity companies, hospitals or essential services shut down for the holidays ? Do steel plants shut down for holidays ? Do BPO companies shut down for holidays ? Of course not. Very basic planning and scheduling processes -- in use for ages across all these businesses -- ensure that employees get their full quota of leave and vacations and yet the businesses and organisations run 365 days a year. Nobody thinks that this is very strange !

Image Credit
So why can the same principle not be extended to other service organisations like courts and government offices ?

Agreed that government employees do not wish to view themselves as a part of a service organisation -- a government job is meant to be a passport to luxurious idleness -- but if anybody in any position of authority has even an iota of interest in improving, however slightly, the work ethic of the sarkari behemoth then exploring this option could be good place to start.

Keeping aside the formal celebrations of the Indian state, Independence and Republic Day, if we abolish the other 15 holidays in the Government calendar we are adding 15 working days to the Government. Employees however need not worry since they would be compensated with an additional 15 days of casual leave. If any employee wants to “celebrate”, say Gandhi Jayanti, Mahavir Jayanti or Guru Nanak’s birthday on the specific day they can always use their CL.

There would be problems on popular festivals, like Diwali, but some clever management and incentives, financial or otherwise, can be used to ensure that office operations do not come to a halt. Organisations that operate round the year manage to do this anyway, so it cannot be an impossible task and moreover, since all Government departments are heavily overstaffed it would be easier to ensure adequate coverage.

The fifteen scheduled holidays are the low hanging fruits but the real boost to government productivity can come if we can abolish the weekly holidays on Saturday and Sunday ! That will inject another 104 working days into the government -- almost a 40% increase ! Again, no individual employee suffers any loss. Everyone gets his two or one and half days of holiday but there is no need to bunch everyone’s holidays on the same two days !! This way, courts and government offices remain open and functional on every day of the year. In principle, this should result in a 40% increase in the quantum of services that gets delivered by the Government to the citizens every year.

Incredible ? But is it really feasible ?

Any new idea is of course the subject of intense criticism by those who swear by the status quo but if we are really interested in that 40% benefit, let us carefully consider the following.

Any organisation that operates round the year has a way of rotating weekly off-days for its employees and the same techniques can be applied to government offices. In fact the process will be even simpler because Government offices are generally overstaffed with people who cannot be laid off because of union pressure and these extra hands will make the scheduling process much easier.

Rotating weekly holidays work best for employees who are generally fungible -- who can be easily replaced by others of similar capabilities. Typically, managers who are responsible and accountable for specific decisions cannot be replaced by people of similar rank. This is where some rationalisation of existing business processes may be necessary. However the vast majority of government business is transactional and does not depend on discretionary decisions. As long as these transactional tasks are adequately documented ( as in ISO 9000 quality manuals ) they can be performed by any clerk or officer who is on duty on any specific day.

Extremely senior people in key decision making roles may have to be handled differently. Here we must use technology to its hilt. Mobile offices based on laptops and tablets connected to 4G networks, teleconferencing, digital signatures and other tools can be used to ensure that people need not be physically present in offices to get the job done. With some planning and adequate technology, meetings can be scheduled and no decision need to be held up just because someone in “off” on a particular day. Fortunately the number of such people will be small and so their difficulties need not be used to obstruct a system that would work well for 95% of government employees.

So abolishing Government holidays -- both scheduled and weekly holidays -- is certainly a feasible solution but what about personal difficulties and challenges ? Will family life be impacted ? There would be some initial issues especially in families where there are two working members but with some planning and mutual adjustment these can be addressed. Obviously no change can be completely painless but if we as a nation understand and appreciate the immense benefit of abolishing holidays then all such issues can be sorted out. After all we are increasing the delivery capacity of Government services by 40% with no additional investments in physical or human infrastructure and that by any yardstick is a very significant achievement.

The government has its eyes fixed on big ticket reforms. A new cabinet is now in place and there are many young people with fresh ideas who are in positions of authority. This simple reform in our administrative process that has no economic or political cost can be harbinger for many far reaching improvements in the governance of India.

No comments: