Ranking and spanking

Ranking mania has gripped ministries of the Union government, especially after the prime minister’s office and NITI Aayog encouraged listings based on performance parameters. Interestingly, ministries with disposable budgets, and are not tied down to salaries and regular expenditure, are indulging in the ranking game. These are the glamorous spending ministries in areas of infrastructure and industrial development. The game began with the ranking of states started by a study group, with which a current member of the NITI Aayog was involved.

The last few days have seen the Indian Railways releasing a study done with the help of an outside agency that ranked railway stations. There is much lamentation that Varanasi, the most favoured constituency in the country, has slipped in its cleanliness-ranks in the hygiene audit. Interestingly, though there are surveys commissioned on passenger amenities like Wi-Fi and clarity of information on rail movement, the Railways have not thought of surveys on the money earnings.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

The urban development ministry, another favourite of the ranking industry, has come up with a list of most liveable cities. The survey was conducted by three agencies for the ministry. The ranking does not give high marks for Varanasi, but has given top marks to three cities in the BJP-ruled Maharashtra. Now, the ministry wants to look at more micro-listing of urban areas, apart from having several projects like smart cities and heritage cities for which generous funding is given. In addition to the private agencies, urban living indexes are also being made by NITI Aayog and other governmental entities.

The civil aviation ministry, too, has got into the game, wanting airports to be listed on the basis of factors like passenger amenities, flight announcements, flight promptness and luggage clearance. The shipping ministry is considering a proposal on listing of major ports in the country.

Academics and bureaucrats are debating whether this multitude of listings, sometimes based on esoteric factors, is helping in governance, or has a diffusing effect. The rankings lead to disputes, too, as the low-ranked entities often question the methodology and the honesty of data. On the other hand, Urban Development Minister Hardeep Singh Puri feels that outsourcing of the performance auditing helped the government overcome its dependence on data provided by the municipal corporations. But, the critics of the outsourced-ranking system feel the audit of the expenditure should be left to the comptroller and auditor general, who controls the accountant generals of the states.

The ranking system is also a glamour game, as politicians and bureaucrats celebrate high rankings to promote themselves. Sometimes rankings have untold consequences. Public sector banks which got high rankings were suddenly under the cloud of mega scams.

For listed government companies, ratings give the advantage of boosting their share prices on the stock markets, while the scams can bring down the prices. Public sector managers are now innovative in anticipating the ranking parameters of agencies and focus on these areas to get good marks.

There is consensus at the higher levels of the government that assessment of governmental spending and setting targets through rankings can stimulate development. The naming and shaming makes the departments, corporations and entities like railway stations to pull up their socks, as they know that they would be publicly ranked in terms of performance.