The Greater Good

During my stint at Google, I was really impressed by how much of the company’s  decision making had been data driven. From the founder’s vision to an employee’s OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), metrics are used to assess performance,  measure progress and help every employee make objective decisions. 

On the other end, working for the Government made me appreciate how complex decision making can be. It’s not that there are no metrics or there is a dearth of data with the government. Every government department generates a ton of data and all programmes are reviewed through metrics to assess progress. For instance, in MNREGA, data on number of job holders, wages paid, number of workers at a particular site in a particular Panchayat are captured in real time. 

Even then, it’s hard to make effective decisions in the government sector for the sheer diversity of the work involved, the intricacy in quantifying a public project and even more importantly, the difficulty in comparing competing choices through numbers.  

Imagine the sheer scale of government’s work. It is concerned with diverse areas of a citizen’s life– from health to housing, environment to electricity, livelihood to local governments, education to ease of living. 

When the choice is between two competing, yet critical subjects, how do you even compare and objectively arrive at an effective decision? 

Let’s say you have some discretionary funds  and you are now required to prepare project proposals to put to use these available funds.

Consider the choices you have.

Would you improve the health infrastructure in a PHC (If yes, which PHC?) Or work on establishing a training centre to upskill the local youth?  Is it a better idea to use the funds to construct a road to the local school Or improve the infrastructure in Anganwadi? How about a public library? 

In what sense, should the needs of a local school be prioritised over a PHC? Or a training centre over a public library? Should we pursue those projects that provide maximum benefit for the maximum number of people? Or should we prioritise works for the most vulnerable even though limited in numbers?

In an ideal world, we would like to have enough resources to solve all the problems in health, education, power, water, infrastructure, livelihood, and public order. But the reality is complex. Our time is limited, and so are our funds. When you prioritise something, you are making a conscious decision not to pursue something else.

Such decision making is one of the biggest challenges I face in my job. At times, it leads me to spend an inordinate amount of time even deciding what to do. But overtime, I have realised that indecision is often worse than a suboptimal decision. So, these days I tend to go with my best judgement at that moment, knowing it may or may not have been the most effective decision. 

So far, I have not found a solution. For now, questions are all I got. 

Given 1 cr untied fund, which project do I work on?

Given 3 hrs of free office time, how should I choose to spend it?

In any situation, how do I make sure I am pursuing the greater good?