“The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already and to do them a little better or little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all”.

– John Maynard Keynes, 1926”

In 2014, just before the Lok Sabha Elections, there was expectation that the new Government will usher in radical change in the way Governance is done. The slogan “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” during the campaign of PM Modi also seemed timely. There were discussions on TV channels as to the appropriate structure of Union Cabinet.  Some of the discussions are captured in http://thinkindia.in.com/. In general the thrust of recommendations was to abolish wasteful  ministries and make structure of remaining ministries lean and efficient. Some specific recommendations included having a unified energy ministry, transportation ministry and agriculture ministry,

The first union cabinet that was sworn in 2014 May was compact almost half the size of earlier cabinets. However, this did not last long, as the cabinet after few reshuffles grew to around 60 or so, with 25 Cabinet Ministers. On top of that there were questions why certain seemingly unrelated Ministries were held by the same Minister and so on. Over the last 3 years, while the contribution of the PM has been striking and some union Ministers have shone in limelight, there is still a feeling that more can be done considering the challenges the country faces.

While Government has articulated many important missions – Clean India, Startup India, make in India and Digital India, the governance and execution structure of these missions needs more work. Certain regions continue to fall behind on even some basics. Certain sectors such as education and health still need lot of work. Certain reforms related to police and ensuring safety of men, women and children remains an unfulfilled agenda. On top of that we have pressure groups on some pretext or other indulge in violence and destruction of public property.

In addition, there seems to be good enough talent pool within the country. Even within the cabinet and party, it appears the existing talent is not utilized fully.

There are certain templates which countries like USA have followed. The US President has only 15 Secretaries and is able to run a huge country. While the USA is more federal and more developed with better systems than India, there is still merit in having a focused structure with clear-cut purpose. John Maynard Keynes emphasized the Government needs to focus on what Government alone can do. Things like law and order, security, infrastructure can be deal-breakers if not taken care of.  Y V Reddy in an interview spoke about tyranny of 10% – 90% of the time we talk about FDI, Organized Sector, Corporates, though they constitute only 10% of the economy.

In summary, we need a framework to design a “good” union cabinet. We propose 5-C framework consisting of Context, Construct, Culture, Competencies and Counters.


In my earlier article published in February 2016 https://swarajyamag.com/politics/can-we-apply-strategy-lessons-from-business-world-to-politics,. I had characterized the strategic position taken by the Government as a variety based position that meets common needs of all people, in contrast with narrower positions addressing narrower groups of people and regions. This correlated well with the theme of Governance of PM Modi where he saw Development as a Mass movement. In addition, I had proposed that the Government should reinforce its strategy using needs based position in the form of a value proposition triad – consisting of “Achche Din”(Development), “Sachche Din”(Countering Corruption) and “Surakshit Din”(Countering threats), where the three dimensions of triad operate in tandem.  Further I had proposed that Government should evaluate an access based position where benefits/services are provided or concerns addressed as per individual needs instead of making decisions at community level, where undeserving may get benefits.  Even looking at sub-groups within a community can be considered as a special case of this approach.  The overall approach can be considered as targeting personal sector. Focus on personal dimension means underplaying pressure groups and vote banks. Overall a philosophy of participative Governance was proposed where individual is at the center of discourse.

Under the theme of Sachche Din, the Government has made important strides in tackling corruption and compliance issues with demonetization, tackling shell companies and benami properties as well as black money kept abroad. The Government also initiated steps to tackle NPAs and made it harder for people to game the system. Under “Surakshit Din” theme, the Government has a more robust foreign policy and has not hesitated to conduct surgical strikes as well as respond to external terror and internal terror. Under Achche Din, host of measures have been taken including deploying GST. All these are work in progress.

In addition, the Government has addressed the concerns of sub-groups (Muslim women, sub-groups of OBCs, pensioners) as well as taken special steps to connect with people over the heads of intermediaries. The dialogue is two-way. The people can report their concerns through tweets to grievance portals to mobile apps to myGov portal.

However certain issues continue to dominate head-lines – distress in agriculture, destruction of property and loss of lives due to protests, deficiencies in education, health-care, law and order and civic governance, just to name a few. More importantly when it comes to security, foreign policy and tackling corruption, Government seems to have taken a fresh approach, it has done to lesser degree in economic matters as well as in tackling long standing deficiencies. While the Government has excelled in tactics, and deserves credit for large number of improvements that touch common man, it appears that the Government is yet to take a transformational approach.

There is also a misconception that just because large number of activities are done in private sector, there is lesser need for planning. In fact, a need for a sophisticated strategic plan that operates at eco-system level is more important today than any time earlier. Just focusing on policies will not do.


Here we look at the construct of individual Ministry. We suggest that we should look at each sector/Ministry from the perspective of Conformance, Performance, Reform and Transformation.

  • Conformance is about continuity with integrity to ensure that laws of the land are respected and due diligence is done. Here the focus is on process adherence and people orientation. For example, Law Ministry has got to be high on conformance.  The conformance is as much about being responsive to people, provide them timely service and respond to calls of distress with a robust process.
  • Performance is about focus on outcomes and culture of execution and making changes in processes, people, culture and metrics to ensure that things get done on the ground in time. For example, Rail Safety has exposed certain execution issues on ground, even with progress otherwise. Health-care, education and poverty alleviation need strong boost to performance.
  • Reform is about change management, where we think we know what should change, but it needs dialogue and negotiation with stakeholders. GST is a classic case of reform which took rather too long and has still some distance to go. Police reforms is another area where there is some degree of clarity yet things have not taken off due to lack of political will and enormous co-ordination required with the State Governments.
  • Transformation is about new ways of thinking/doing not only at Government level but also at societal/eco-system level. At times, the philosophical underpinnings of Governance are dictated by our mind-set, which comes in the way of transformation. We can safely say that Agriculture is one sector crying out for transformation. The Government is heavily invested in agriculture, yet issues remain. The civic Governance is yet another area. Basically, here the way we have been doing things such as reliance on contractors and civic bodies just does not seem to work. In both these cases we really need to think through using an innovative approach. There may be more sectors such as Defense Manufacturing where country has failed say compared to our space program. The way court cases get delayed is another area where routine reforms will not do.

Same Ministry may have multiple agendas vying for attention. Railways needs to be both Performance driven as well as transformation driven (business model). Even I&B Ministry can play a transformational role by encouraging participative Governance by providing connect between people and their representatives/officials as well as extensive field-work.

For every Ministry, we should draw up a transformation, reform, performance and conformance agenda. We should characterize each Ministry as to where the highest focus should be among these four and relative order in line with the Governance agenda at a given point in time.  Each Ministry should be equipped with the right personnel and resources to drive these agendas.


Peter Drucker once said: “Culture eats strategy for lunch”.  Under culture we address how the Ministries should collaborate. At times for the sake of cohesive Cabinet, some competent people get left out. Ideally cohesion and talent mix should be managed without sacrificing ether.

Each Ministry should handle as cohesive functionality as possible without excessive coupling with other ministries. Arun Shourie in his book on Governance has deplored the number of inter-ministerial interactions required to make even routine changes. Some of these things may no longer happen under a strong PM.  Yet, it is better to have a structure which can stand the test of time.

Wherever synergies exist, the Ministries should be combined to fewer Ministries. Where the work-load is very high we can have Ministerial Clusters which co-ordinate with each other, with one of the Ministers playing cluster-coordination role. We can have Energy Cluster, Transpiration Cluster, Development Cluster, Security Cluster and so on. These cater to sustained communication and co-ordination as well as joint planning. The bodies such as CCEA become decision making bodies to which these clusters present their integrated plans.

Certain Ministers either as the only role or as additional role should be identified as mission owners. The mission owners should champion missions such as Clean India, Make in India, Digital India, Startup India, Women’s safety, River rejuvenation etc. Generally, any mission covers multiple ministries.

Certain Ministers should be accountable for regional development to different regions. So, we should have a Minister focused on North, West, South, East, North-East, etc. They can also play a role to facilitate dialogue among state Governments in the region.

Once we arrive at a structure, we need to assess how it stands up to challenges facing the nation. For example, USA formed Homeland Security Ministry which combined variety of security agencies under one umbrella. Chidambaram had proposed a separate internal security Ministry. These suggestions need to be evaluated. At the same time, having separate skills Ministry, Women and Child Welfare Ministry have only had limited impact. It is also worth looking at transferring all centrally funded institutions such as IITs, IIMs and NITs to Science, Technology and Knowledge Ministry with a charter on innovation. MHRD can be a nodal Ministry with focus on employment and mass education.


It is important that every Ministry, mission, region and national objective be served by right set of people with the right mind-set and right competencies. Certain Ministries need specialist handling, such as Finance, while certain others can do well with conventional wisdom. Again, these assumptions can be turned on their head by high achievers who succeed in their own way. Generally, a Cabinet Minister should be prudent, courageous and conscientious where he/she can guide the entire cabinet in matters of national importance. Being silent when one should speak is the biggest crime here. Certain Ministries have seen wonders where Ministers have been detail oriented such as Power and Defense. In addition, the Ministers should have integrity, passion, pragmatism, political skills and ability to be forceful to different degrees based on the situation.

In general, transformational skills need the ability to appreciate/evolve new paradigms. So, a Minister who is a thinker/thought leader and preferably a passionate communicator will fit the bill here.  A transformational leader will also think of new strategies say to win in global trade.

For reforms, we need a great communicator who has good relationships with stakeholders who is pragmatic and willing to negotiate the rules of engagement.

For Performance agenda, we need leaders who are focused on execution, with “can do, will do” approach. Managing large organizations, variety of people, circumstances, crises and willingness to work from the trenches is important here.

For Conformance agenda, we need leaders who are strong on processes, policies, laws as well people-orientation. These people who can navigate complexity in meticulous manner every day so that wheels of Governance keep running smoothly. They should evolve processes to communicate with citizens and stakeholders in an ongoing basis. They need to be caring and sensitive to concerns of people. Sharing plans and reporting progress, responding to emergent situations and distress are very vital here. Conformance by no means is simple or routine. There are always situations that need to be addressed before they become crises.

Each Ministry should have appropriate talent mix among Ministers and assisting/advising bureaucracy/experts.  The Ministry should be supported by legislators and political parties. The Ministries should actively engage with them.

It is desirable that the Ministers individually and collectively are driven by sense of purpose than merely by sense of prestige, power or pelf.

There should be a culture of participative governance where all Ministers connect with people directly through variety of interfaces: Social Media to Grievance portal should assure people that somebody is out there to listen to them.  The Government should be always conscious about what is important to common people. The people expect Government to be responsive and provide timely service/information. Railway Minister has set a good example of sharing annual progress report.


Any Ministry can become engine of growth. Culture and Tourism Ministry can pay special attention to places of cultural importance and make sure that the amenities are best in class all over India. Every Ministry should have economic and social indicators that it can report/track to justify its existence and communicate its performance. The employment generated, contribution to GDP, contribution to FDI, contribution to exports, promotion of new India as brand could be themes around which metrics can be designed. The measurement framework should be evolved to compare relative performance of Ministries as well performance relative to national agenda.At national level, we need to have vision, mission, objectives and strategies well defined. In line with that metrics need to be defined and those metrics should percolate to every ministry.

Note: Revised Article is available at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/getting-union-cabinet-right-shreekanth-m-prabhu/