Ministry. Secretariat. Collectorate. Panchayat Samiti.
Sir. Madam. Sir. Madam.
Meeting. Field Visit. Presentation.
New Delhi. Nagpur. Noamundi.
These are the words around which my life revolves currently.
At SocialCops, we work on a large number of projects with the government. Typically, our data platform helps some of the most important decision-makers in the country get crucial insights from data. We have deployed our platform at multiple levels of the government — apex bodies, national ministries, state governments, and even district governments.
Our partnerships team has attended over 150 government meetings since January 2016. This includes meetings with officials at various levels and with varied agendas — introductory meetings, deployments, feedback sessions, and even policy discussions.
When I joined SocialCops a year ago, I had limited experience working with the government. However, within a year, I can proudly say that I have met ministers, spoken at press launches by MP’s, visited villages in the remotest tribal belts, met with over 25 IAS officers, and even had some of these officers buy me coffee at Starbucks.
In India, many of us grow up thinking that the government lacks good intent and productivity. However, in the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with a number of government officials, some of whom were among the most hard working, efficient, and driven people that I have met.
Here are 7 myths about the government that I learned were wrong.
Myth Number 1: A Government Job Is From 9 to 5
Most people believe that government officers have a cozy 9-to-5 job. There couldn’t be a bigger myth about them. Most IAS officers start their day as early as at 8 am and sometimes work as late as 2 am.
Don’t believe me? Here is a list of the earliest and latest meetings that we have attended.
Earliest meeting start time: 9 am
- First meeting with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
- First meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare
- Update meeting with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation
Latest meeting start time: 12:30 am
- Update meeting with a District Collector
- Update call with a central ministry official (12:45 am)
Myth Number 2: Government Meetings Never Start On Time
This is a very common myth, though it is usually wrong. In fact, most officers have their staff call us one day in advance to get the details of the attendees and presentations. That helps most meetings start on time.
Here’s a graphic showing data on my 52 meetings so far.
Myth Number 3: The Government Does Not Work on Weekends
I have seen a number of my friends in the corporate world yearn for 6 pm on Fridays and their ever-so-sacred weekends. However, many officers and elected representatives in the government have scheduled meetings at 8 pm on Friday, 9 am on Saturday, and even 4 pm on Sunday. Here’s some data on these meetings.
Meetings on holidays: 3
I have even accompanied an IAS officer on a field visit to interact with villagers on a weekend when the entire state was celebrating Rama Navami!
Meetings on weekends: 13
Here’s the breakup of these 13 meetings with government officials from the past 6 months.
Myth Number 4: Government Work Is Very Slow
As is typical of startups, we are quite used to working crazy hours. To our surprise, we have received some of our craziest deadlines from government partners. It’s endearing to see the government working on startup timelines as well.
We were working with a national ministry to build a dashboard that tracks the outreach of a scheme. Here’s a week full of deadlines, requests, and responses for that project.
“Sir, what is our next deadline?”
That is how some of our negotiations on timelines start! I think of the government as a company, but with a billion clients and a complex hierarchy. At SocialCops, we work with over 150 organizations — corporates, government, philanthropic foundations, and nonprofits — yet, among all our clients, the government is often the most demanding.
Myth Number 5: It Is Mandatory to Be Grey-haired to Voice Your Opinion
When I graduated from LSR, I was told that creating impact in policy requires years of patience and hard work to finally reach a position where your opinion counts enough to drive real change.
However, at SocialCops, I was surprised to find that government officials ask our opinions on important issues.
For example, when my colleague was meeting with a senior official in a central ministry for the first time, the first thing he asked when she entered his office was, “What do you think is going wrong with our programme?” She then spoke about ways in which the data collection and dissemination processes could be improved. The official further asked her, “Tell me, as a normal citizen, what do you think about the scheme? Do you think an average Indian will understand the scheme? What can we do better?”. It is indeed heartening to see government officers ask us for such multi-faceted feedback on their work.
Though the average age of our partnerships team is just 24, many government officials we have worked with have been very open to our ideas. They understand that, in the upcoming era of digital governance, it doesn’t take 20 years to push for change.
Myth Number 6: People at the Grassroots Are Not Knowledgeable
This is a myth that needs to be broken within the government itself first. I have sometimes heard senior officials complain about the capabilities of their junior staff. Yet I have been pleasantly surprised by some of the individuals I’ve met in the junior rungs of the government. Whenever I need to understand a data problem, I have always relied on the department computer operators, middle order clerks, and even assistants for a solution.
A few months ago, I was in Nagpur, trying to understand how to triangulate data across 32 portals for the health department. I spoke to every official — the District Health Officer, Additional District Health Officer, MIS in charge — to try to understand where every piece of health data resides. Everyone gave me the same remark: “Madam, why don’t you look at the portals first?” This wasn’t ideal, since this meant opening every one of the 32 portals and cross-checking what data is on each portal. Eventually I found a recent postgraduate from a local college working as a computer operator, who gave me a full picture of the data system, told me exactly where data mismatches are likely, and how they can be cross-checked.
Many “junior” government staff members have used their field knowledge to help me with some of the most interesting data challenges: how to triangulate data, why village names in India won’t match, what data points are important to track on a regular basis, and how digitalization can be fast-tracked. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some of their insights and solutions were more practical than what I have read in research papers or heard in podcasts.
Myth Number 7: The Government Is Not Data-Driven or Does Not Believe in Data
This is a myth that we at SocialCops too have had — the government doesn’t have the data and, when it does, it does not use it. However, we are glad to have been proven wrong. Here are examples of some of the most important data sets that the government maintains regularly.
The government does maintain important data. However, there are two key reasons why politicians and government officers are unable to use data to drive decisions — no time to analyze large data sets, and no time to access first-hand field information.
This is where data visualization can help save a lot of time. Our insightful dashboards help drive better decisions by providing a high-level overview to decision-makers while giving them the flexibility to drill down to granular data.
For example, we built a village development dashboard for a district in Maharashtra, in partnership with Tata Trusts. On May 5, 2016, the Finance Minister of Maharashtra, who is also the Guardian Minister for this district, was reviewing a sub-district’s progress at a public conference. When the Public Health Engineering Department’s officer claimed that the reach of tap water connections was almost 100%, I quickly searched through our dashboard and reported that 8,700 of around 13,000 households did not have a tap water connection. The Finance Minister noted that this needed to be fixed. During the course of the meeting, I used the dashboard’s data to raise more issues to the Finance Minister. This is truly data-driven planning. Read the full case study here.
Working with the government is a roller coaster ride. One day I might be sitting in an old British building in Central Delhi with a Principal Secretary of a national scheme, while the next day I might be in a village in Jharkhand working with the block officer on a widow pension scheme. I don’t think any classroom across the world can teach me as much about governance and the development sector as these meetings have. For a 23-year old with just a bachelors degree, that’s a lot of mastery.
Signing off for another Central Delhi expedition!
I am doing now a private job. I think the govt job is better because life will be good and no work tensions. So I am now preparing for govt jobs and jobads site helping for preparation.
Thanks Richa, For Giving us informative information about the government time schedule and help to change the mentality about the government jobs.
Nice and an informative article!
It is very difficult to contact concern officials. Lower level officials can not take decision and everything is decided at higher level and it is final.
I did read the whole blog, your journey is amazing but here is a common man’s experience with government.
1. Over 30% Email addresses of varied departments and personnels mentioned on government portals actually are not being operated by anyone. You can test that by sending emails to these addresses and you would immediately get a mail bounce.
2. 90% emails sent to these remaining working 70% email addresses do not ever respond. So the question is what’s the use of such email addresses.
3. Over 20% phone numbers mentioned on government websites don’t really connect from a privately held mobile number.
4. Out of the remaining 80% working phone numbers that can be accessed from private numbers at least 70% do not pickup the phone ever, in 20% cases they pickup the phone after numerous calls and the in 50% of the cases the government officials say just a single line and cut the phone.
5. Only a very few on the top layer of these government officials are hard working which leaves rest of the huge 95% organization to be highly un-professional.
I tried to reach out to External Affairs Ministry, sent them over 10 emails, nobody ever responded. I tried to reach out to Ministry of Corporate affairs their main email address doesn’t work and i just received a bounce emails. The emails of officials do work but they never responded to my 7 emails.
Reality is, registering a simple startup company in this country is so tedious and expensive, leave any other processes aside. This country is out of shape and this is what makes me sad.
Face the reality.
Can a government officer/ employee sign the official documents on Sundays/ any other holiday dates if he/she wants to come to the office and work on Sundays?
if he/she do so, is it considered valid document signed on Sunday/holiday dates?
The answer is 99% chances are that you will never find those officials on weekends. even if you gain access to that remaining 1% they will never do without money.
Face the reality.
well all know that Government job have minimum work load as well as provide a lot of comforts as compared with the private sector job. Not only this, there are no over- times as well as extra weekends required as well.A government employee knows exactly which days he is going to work and for how long, hence providing a more relaxed as well as satisfactory life style. Government job provided the Biggest security.the most attractive function of government job that provide a pension after retirement.
Really enjoyed reading this article! It’s sad how people cynically turn over the responsibility for everything that is wrong by blaming an incompetent government or the intellect of people at certain levels. Definitely inspires me to work for the government and let go of similar biases.
I think your analysis broad brushes – for eg on hard work
(i) Not everyone works hard – secretary Languages or NACO hardly work, while Commerce , Finance etc slug their b—off . Even in Police see what DG Foresnsic does and compare with SP/ Commissioner etc
(ii) Over time work levels have certainly increased
(iii) Hard work towards what end ?
I could argue similarly on each of the 7 points
The larger issues are follows
(i) Lack of performance management- extremely misplaced accountability
(ii) Lack of control on agendas , span, subordinates , political masters
(iii) Schedule of authorities
(iv( I am sorry to say but) competence to handle the task on hand
I have used a term – applies at least to Group A officers “Good people trapped in a bad system “- and therefore hats off to many of them , sp the dabang varieties
Exactly. Arvind is bang on! However, the writeup seems a made-up one. So goody-goody, plasticy and fancy. If I write a counter-article that’d be much lengthier, more eventful, and necessarily uglier. If I have to put it in simple terms — the entire govt machinary is a bunch of lazy freeloaders. Of course, a few, just a few are good.
An eye opener sounds about right. Looks like I’ve been working with the wrong government all this while. Must. Check. My passport.
small query, do they (Government) pay for such value addition?
Well pointed out Richa.
I work in the government and can vouch for similar experiences ! 🙂
It is not the problem of government or private servants. It is the problem of attitude and also ability and willingness to take calculated risk by these servants occupying senior positions. Had there been the desired level of honesty and commitment in these government servants, then there would not have been so many scandals and delays in execution of projects. These servants shall be made squarely responsible for all these ills crept in the Indian civil administration. It is also a fact that a small percentage of honest and efficient servants exist in the system but they are in a minority.
Those government servants reached in high positions are more concerned in ensuring their salaries increase, allotment of piece of land from the government etc than addressing issues confronted with by the unemployed, educated as well illiterates.
We may keep drumming about our achievements on paper but the ground truth remains otherwise. Realise this fact before it is too late to rectify.
Well, how many of us citizens protest and come to the aid /support of honest civil servants when they are transferred for the nth time for standing up to corruption ?
For every bribe taker in civil services, there is a bribe giver . How many of us citizens resist paying bribes to speed things up and fight it out to get a service without paying bribes?
Worse still how many of us citizens can honestly say that they have never paid a bribe for some illegal benefit or entitlement.
How many of us citizens expect the government and civil servants to do things everything for us like cleaning garbage when we litter at will ?
How many of us citizens come out to protest and be vigilant on service quality of daily services like government schools , ration etc
How many of us citizens can honestly claim that they have never evaded taxes and tried every trick to game the tax system ?
The list is endless.
BOTTOM LINE.. Honest and efficient civil servants and governments don’t come out of thin air. They are a product of society ( i.e. all of us common citizens). We get what we deserve.
A great piece on government working.
Would you like to analyse police working also?
Agree, but Sir, how many among us are like you?
A comprehensive approach , on almost all issue is missing. Major sabotaging is politically parties and their manifasto, which are generally populist….
A bunch of government servant, I repeat servant, generally have the capacity and potential to tickle them.
Really delighted for recognize the service being rendered by small and tiny government servant like me.
I will be more happy if the same opinion continues even after few more years.
Kudos to you Richa. I know three four very close relative/colleagues working win Govt sectors and I truely believe with your article. Only problems for rest accountability need to be set.
Its good to see increase In number’ of Non- Corrupt Officers of this Caliber
Hard work is not necessarily smart work. Proof of pudding is in its eating. Extreme poverty, unemployment, crime, population explosion.
We bureaucrats must be doing excellent job.
Well written Richa…Many IAS as well as other Govt officials would be heartened to be recognised as hard working people. India runs because of many of these diligent workers. But they are inadequate. I would suggest that SocialCops also does a number of civil servants per 10000 citizens using data from open sources across the world. The insights gathered would be useful to share with all. In my opinion, India is one of the most understaffed nations in terms of civil servants ( administrative, health, sanitation, research etc). With the exception of military and paramilitary forces where we are over staffed, every other department including police, India is understaffed. Thats why such myth busting articles are necessary on a regular dose. Need for quicker delivery of services is what results in corruption. Demand is high whereas supply is minimal. So, if you driven and ebullient young bunch of professionals study this issue thoroughly, India could have a solution in sight.
Excellent and informative .But social cops have lot of resources which they do not tap
And they don’t communicate to grassroot
Interested about village dashboards..plz share details if possible. Insightful article, thanks.
And then everyone outside Government claims to be knowing more. I personally believe that people outside Government are good fashion sellers than fashion setters or fashion itself.
Very well written. Thanks. In you are ever in Bokaro for any of these expeditions do let me know.
Really an eyeopener…
Ya so many government officials are sincere, hardworking and honest, people frame opinion out of ignorance and ill information, thanks for sharing your experience
Fantastic analysis! Finally someone from outside understood the reality of working in government. Thanks a lot!
Wow… Someone from outside finally understood the reality. Although I don’t agree with the point on punctuality( govt meetings do start late but not becos of the laziness etc but because almost all the schedules get pushed little bit as unscheduled things surprise us with a demand to be solved on priority basis and lot of time goes in managing them.
Very well analysed. Thanks !
Damn! After this I feel like working with our government! Nice one. A must read for all those who have no faith in our government
After a long time read something impressive about the govt.
Good work di???
Good to read this article. Keep up the good work.