Case of the transferring official

9 Sep

Recently, NextDrop went through the transition phase that every startup/social enterprise that is working with State run entities goes through. Transfer or changing of utility/government officials. All the rapport and trust you built over the past 2 years winked out in a flutter. As it so happens, while I knew this was inevitable eventually, this change of guard in Hubli caught me completely blindsighted. Here I was; happily preparing for my trip to the US, ready to recount to anyone who would listen, that working with government entities in India isn’t fraught with delays, glacial pace and reams of paperwork; content in the knowledge that I had readied everything for my absence for the next three weeks. All the while, though, something was pecking at my brain, telling me I had forgotten something. Something major. And this ‘major’ unleashed itself on me the day before my departure. The new Hubli Water Board Executive Engineer had taken charge and had summoned me to his office.

What ensued was precisely how one should not begin a partnership with the new administator of the state utility. Therefore I decided that the world must learn from my mistakes. Here are the most crucial things to consider when a new administrator assumes charge of government entity you are working with:

1) Prepare during the transition phase – My cardinal sin was to not prepare for the new arrival during the transition phase. Once you find out that your current counterpart is about to leave, there are two things one must do. First, find out what the priorities of the incoming engineer/manager are. Second, ask your current counterpart to introduce your service/work to the newcomer. A bonus would be if they introduce you as well but that is expendable as long as your services are given a proper foreword.

2) Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork – In India, you cannot easily find an exhaustive list of all the documents, permission and letters you need to have before you have an ironclad blessing to operate, especially if you’re working with the municipality or a state run utility. As a result, the paperwork we had, while sufficient for the previous administrator, was found grossly lacking  by the new incumbent.
In my experience, it is best to check with utility staff in charge of budgeting and finances what additional paperwork you need to establish your legitimate right to work with them beyond question. If ever in doubt, best is to preempt and get that paperwork in advance. If you think no one is going to ask for it, trust me, that will be the first document they’ll demand.

3) Be the host, not a supplicant – If you have received a good foreword and favorable reviews from citizens and users of your service, then you are well set for a productive first meeting. However, you should make first contact. What I should have done is to call on the new engineer and ask for a meeting. Even if he did not acknowledge it right away, I would have marked my presence in the register. When he finally gives you an appointment, invite him to see your office and learn about the work you have been doing successfully for the past x number of years. This is especially significant if you are doing anything related to technology.
Most administrators view technology as a daunting opportunity. While it sounds oxymoronic – it is anything but. Even the most ‘luddite’ utility managers see technology as the great emancipator. A pill to kill all ills. However, they may be extremely wary of it since it obscures their operations within a black box with a fancy looking User Interface. The closer they are to on the ground operations, the more wary they are. As a result, being transparent about how your technology does what it does in layman’s tongue, will go a long way in increasing their comfort level both with you and your services.

4) Get educated – first hand – By educated, I mean internalize his vision, priorities and motivations for the office. During your initial discussions, try and gauge if there is a fit between your services and his goals and mandate. That will define your focus area and further opportunities to support his targets. You can be the instrument for his and ultimately the utility’s improved performance.

5) Establish your credibility – At the beginning, any administrator will have a lot of questions about your company. What are your motivations behind doing this work, where is the funding coming from and most importantly how much money you are making. These are especially pertinent for startups/social enterprises. His skepticism is completely understandable. In countries like India, there are throngs of peddling salesmen trying to sell junk to the government. So the administrator’s first instinct is honed to be extremely skeptical. In order to establish your credibility, you must be willing to answer his questions honestly. Some of these might be beyond the boundaries of standard due diligence but that is the price of his trust. For example, I had to pretty much lay out my balance sheet and details of my marginal costs in front of him. The rewards, however, for such transparency are also commensurate. Once you have his trust, he’ll start to incorporate you in his vision. And that is the place you want to be!

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