Saturday, 1 August 2009

Time For PSEs To Up The Ante

The public sector enterprise (PSE) is a complex entity in terms of objectives and goals. We expect PSEs to churn profits but assign projects and terms which no private sector organisation will touch with a barge pole. We keep comparing their results with their counterparts in the private sector, and more often than not, forget that they were created and exist for citizen- and society-centric purposes, rather than profit-centric purposes. Post-independence it was the public sector that provided the required thrust to the economy, and developed and nurtured the human resources that are vital ingredients for the success of any enterprise; public or private. This is not to say that all public sector organisations in India have been the epitome of public service; we know better than to paint them with the same brush. However, over the years, for reasons real or perceived, the public sector which was an automatic choice for aspiring technocrats and bureaucrats, lost its sheen as a preferred employer of the best technical and business talent in the country.

Therefore, when Union Bank of India becomes the largest recruiter at one of the best business schools in the country, we need to look deeper than a perfunctory assignment of cause to a recessionary economy. Look deeper and we see that PSEs that today contribute about 8 per cent of our GDP have recruited 16 per cent of the graduating class. The slowdown must have helped, but the PSEs also must be doing something right to be able attract the best talent. In the face of such data, The Human Factor started talking to employees and management in the large PSEs, and discovered remarkable employee-centric practices. From BHEL to Nalco to ONGC to the other large PSEs, we saw remarkably perceptive leadership teams lending their support to implement employee engagement processes that would make a true-blue MNC proud.

Public sector employees today are at the helm of complex challenges of administration in critical sectors like policing, manufacturing, education, healthcare, transportation, land management, infrastructure, skill promotion, employment generation, rural development and urban management. All these are intricate issues which call for domain expertise, long experience in the sector, and deep insights into the social and economic realities. And of course, all of these would need to be backed by a leader who has a vision and wants to make that difference. There is need to foster excellence in the public systems, and consistently attract the best talent and expertise, while ensuring that they remain citizen-centric. And our PSEs have risen to that challenge. Processes of recruitment, periodic training, promotions and postings, and strategic career management are undergoing an overhaul to help public sector executives develop these skills. Performance-pay has been introduced while seniority-based promotions, once the bane of the government sector, have been considerably suppressed. No wonder then, the PSEs have started going up the popularity charts as preferred employers at the best graduate schools. There is, however, no margin for complacency, as once the economy rebounds and the private sector remunerations become more attractive, PSEs may once again see an exodus of talent. This, therefore, is the time for PSEs to up the ante and create policies and work environments that are superior to the private sector even in a growth economy.

There is inspiration close to home though, with Singapore being able to attract and retain the best talent in its public sector, which has resulted in the country being ranked as the best place to do business. In India too, we will hopefully have the public sector attract the best in the near future, which in turn, would make India a preferred investment destination for the private sector.

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