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5 things I learnt at the Corporation of Chennai

February 4, 2014 by

1. AE2 is not an algebraic formula

If you visit the Corporation of Chennai, you are bound to hear mentions of and references to ‘AE2’. You will hear officials talk about how the AE2 can accomplish any administrative task: calculations of the exact water and cement ratio required for construction work, generation of charts to monitor the progress of work, checks on the quality of reinforced cement concrete, and also the finalisation of tenders and issue of work orders. I used to wonder what mathematical formula could crunch figures for such a broad range of administrative tasks and how the city would function without the magical AE2!

It was only when I was more familiar with the workings of the Corporation of Chennai did I learn the truth. The AE2 is not an algebraic formula but a public servant! AE2 is Corporation slang for Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE), an engineer who is responsible for a variety of tasks that include conducting surveys of the site, preparing budgets for the construction of new assets, getting these budgets sanctioned, giving out contracts, monitoring the work of contractors and paying their bills.

2. Putting in on paper

Increasingly, local governments are being pushed to migrate from papers and files to “e-governance” systems, or software solutions that simplify and streamline work flows so that government officials can allocate their time wisely and be more efficient at work. In fact, funding from schemes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) are contingent on local governments implementing certain e-governance reforms that include basic citizen services, revenue earning services, efficiency improvement services etc. Unfortunately, not all government officials at the Corporation of Chennai are familiar with computers and the internet; many prefer to print out citizens’ complaints from various different e-governance software solutions and deal with these on paper.

In this context, what is most useful for officials are not ready made software solutions that skirt around their real problems, but just plain old stationary in new innovative avatars. For instance, the Corporation of Chennai uses files that have two flaps – a red flap and a green flap. These flaps are positioned, depending on the urgency of the contents in the file. Files with documents that require urgent attention have the red flap on top; and those that do not require immediate attention have the green flap on top. These files travel the corridors of Ripon building, and are a visually powerful means for officials to identify pressing issues and address them.

Pictures of the file with the ‘urgent’ and ‘not-urgent’ flaps.

3. The extent of informal knowledge and its use

Data at the Corporation of Chennai is of poor quality, has significant gaps and is not in formats that can be easily used and accessed, an issue we have discussed earlier. The processes employed to collect data and maintain databases are often dubious and the data is rarely verified for accuracy. It is no wonder then that officials do not rely on this unreliable data for planning new projects for the city. Instead they depend on their exhaustive informally-held knowledge of the city – knowledge that has been acquired from years of experience of being a street-level bureaucrat in Chennai.

Most officials insist that they “know” their work and the city’s landscape, and take decisions about new projects based on this informal knowledge. For instance, one official in the Bridges department said that bridges were repaired when the officials felt some “uncomfort level”. Another official in the Storm Water Drains department said of contractors that had been blacklisted for irresponsible work: “We have an idea about blacklisted contractors, but it is not a physical list. We all know which contractors are blacklisted and which are not”. A senior official succinctly summarized this reliance on informal knowledge: “all the documentation is in the junior engineer’s head”.

4. The role/rule of consultants

Possibly because data is so scanty and cannot be used for planning, or the inadequacy of human resources, the Corporation of Chennai relies heavily on consultants to prepare their project proposals and reports.

However, relying solely on the reports of consultants has attendant problems. For instance, consultants working with different departments and projects do not always coordinate with each other to ensure that the plans they draft and the solutions they propose are in harmony. Also, many officials agree that consultants often come with ready-made solutions, but little understanding of the problem. But what is most disturbing is the general acceptance that what a consultant says is gospel truth. Many government officials do not remember why they are constructing an asset or what purpose it will serve. All they know is that a consultant said it was required.

5. Coordination between departments

Coordination is a difficult task in general, but especially for such a large and complex organisation like the CoC. Each department performs a very specialized task and is required to coordinate with several other government departments to get work done. In fact, the task is so daunting that many officials and departments prefer to ignore it.

For instance, it is the responsibility of the Solid Waste Management department to construct roads at its dumpsites to ensure that their sites are navigable. Interestingly, the Roads department is not contacted when these roads have to be built, and the Solid Waste Management department directly palms out the task to a contactor. While many argue that constructing roads in a fragile environment dump is a very specialized task, few question why the Roads department is bypassed in the contracting out of roads! Is it really easier for departments to work directly with contractors than for them to coordinate with other departments at the Corporation?

Written by Vinaya Padmanabhan, researcher, Transparent Chennai