“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” John Powell
Every review of defence procurements by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) highlights the same deficiencies and omissions. As per CAG, mistakes are repetitive in nature and no corrective measures have been initiated – similar mistakes are being committed year after year without any discernible improvement. To err is human but to repeat mistakes is unwise. Recurrence of mistakes due to sheer indifference and inefficiency can neither be justified nor condoned. In the case of defence procurements, mistakes can prove grave for national security.
“¦there is little to suggest that Ministry of Defence (MoD) is keen to promote organisational learning to prevent recurrence of past mistakes. As a consequence, it has become a ritual for Indian defence procurement regime to continue to blunder and for CAG to castigate MoD in its reports.
Organisational learning is the sum total of the experience gained by key functionaries. A well structured and efficient system channelises individual experiences into a configuration that facilitates discerning of pattern of recurring mistakes and identification of contributory factors. However, the process has to be sustained on regular basis to convert inputs into lessons learnt in a format that can be easily disseminated to all related agencies. It is only then that corrective measures can be taken at all levels.
Unfortunately, Indian procurement setup is beleaguered with problems of its own making. Despite the fact that Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has undergone four revisions since 2002, there is little to suggest that Ministry of Defence (MoD) is keen to promote organisational learning to prevent recurrence of past mistakes. As a consequence, it has become a ritual for Indian defence procurement regime to continue to blunder and for CAG to castigate MoD in its reports.
India’s failure to learn from previous cases is costing the nation dear. Unplanned procurements continue to prevent optimum utilisation of resources and perpetuate ad-hocism. Delays continue to dog all cases with resultant cost escalations. Faulty parameters and inefficient trial regimes result in premature termination of many cases. Flawed contracts lend themselves to multiple interpretations, making India suffer through small print. Subsequent disputes result in protracted wrangles and delays. Vendors raise prices of spares arbitrarily, fail to provide promised after-sales support and show reluctance to transfer contracted technology. India finds itself helpless to force compliance of contractual obligations.
Reasons for Failure to Learn from Experience
Some of the major factors that contribute to Indian inability to institutionalise organisational learning in the critical area of defence procurements are discussed below.
Lack of Data Bank
In an omission of grave dimensions, MoD has totally overlooked the need to create a data bank to create organisational memory. DPP’s mandate is limited to the maintenance of a data bank of prospective vendors by the Acquisition Wing for issuing Requests for Proposals (RFP).
Acquisition Wing has no centralised retrievable records available of different acquisition cases handled by it. Each case is dealt with on different files and stored accordingly. No effort is ever made to identify issues of common interest to draw lessons from acts of commission and omission. Lack of a centralised data bank promotes compartmentalised and disjointed functioning. CAG has pointed out instances when different services paid different prices for the same item from the same vendor. Worse, after signing a contract, Acquisition Wing gets no inputs as regards performance of the vendor. Contract management and monitoring are outside its purview.
Inadequacies of Acquisition Functionaries
Staff inadequacies have been the bane of Indian procurement regime. Procurement of military equipment worth billions of dollars is being carried out by people who are ill-equipped for the job. Even CAG was forced to observe that the existing system of acquisitions being handled by unspecialised personnel posted for three-year tenures was simply not adequate. It pointed out, “Defence acquisition is a cross-disciplinary activity requiring expertise in technology, military, finance, quality assurance, market research, contract management, project management, administration and policy making”.
Bureaucrats are averse to learning from others experience in the mistaken belief that their basic intellect, initial training and subsequent exposure equip them to shoulder any responsibility.
The staff carrying out acquisition functions is drawn from the three services, the civil bureaucracy and the defence finance. They are neither selected for any particular expertise nor are given any special training to handle defence procurements. They even lack necessary education to comprehend competing technologies and technicalities of complex procurement procedures. Most unfairly, they are expected to ‘learn on the job’ by trial and error method.
Most functionaries are posted for tenures varying from one to three years and hence can provide little continuity. By the time they start understanding nuances of acquisition complexities, they move out. Their personal experience remains shallow and of little value to the organisation. Therefore, they are unable to make any significant contribution to organisational learning.
Mindset of Indian Bureaucracy
One of the biggest impediments to learning from experience is individualism, sense of self preservation and obduracy of Indian bureaucracy. Most functionaries are averse to sharing their experience with others as they view their knowledge to be their strength and strive hard to guard it. Thus, individual knowledge does not get converted into organisational knowledge.
Conversely, bureaucrats are averse to learning from other’s experience in the mistaken belief that their basic intellect, initial training and subsequent exposure equip them to shoulder any responsibility. That is why all senior functionaries (both military and civil) loathe training and prefer to hone their skills through their own experience on the job. They tend to develop a sense of infallibility due to the power exercised by them. Such an attitude inhibits knowledge sharing as every individual prefers to be the sole repository of all knowledge.