DRDO for "Reputation Management"

I’m sure everyone saw Amitav Ranjan’s report in The Indian Express a few days ago about how DRDO has hired the services of the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) to compile a study of the organisation’s contributions to the military sector, civil sector, industry, economy and beyond.

Ranjan, with whom I reported the eight-part series on DRDO in November last year, points out in his current report that the NCAER misadventure is simply for DRDO to “showcase some of its successes in failed defence projects that have found application in the corporate world.”

The Express followed with a stinging editorial in today’s edition that I couldn’t possibly agree with more. The edit said, “Cosmetic exercises at managing reputation can delay change, an outcome that will incidentally be welcomed by the DRDO brass.” Too, too, true. Why is it that DRDO Bhavan will subject itself to absolutely everything – including a study (with financial implications) about its contribution to society – when it should be making deep introspections about how best to manage its future? “Reputation management”. I couldn’t have put it better.

Ever since the DRDO series in the Express last year, the organization has embarked on an inspired – and in some ways, constructive – public relations exercise to try and understand why perceptions of it are the way they are in the media, and why they are so resoundingly consistent. That hasn’t of course stopped stubborn opinion about wet-behind-the-ears reporters who don’t understand technology. Honestly, that’s cowardice. You definitely don’t need to understand too much technology to understand what straightforwardly prudent, and what makes for simple pseudo-nationalistic – and ultimately retrograde – hubris. Getting an economic research body to compile what will ultimately be used as a shield against criticism for eternity is not just juvenile, but it actually serves no real purpose. I speak strictly for myself, but am pretty sure the government and the people (at least those who are interested) would much rather see an Akash or an Arjun delivered on time, rather than a statistics-infested advert for an astonishingly wasteful organization that predicates its only defences on a handful of (definitely) successful programmes.

Emerging from the screen of opacity and engaging journalists with credible, formal information is an excellent step towards building bridges – has anyone noticed how many “positive” stories there’ve been in the press over the last six-seven months on the life sciences wing, the radars, the avionics etc? Interview by missile scientists who were otherwise never seen or heard. These are not coincidences. To its credit, DRDO is serious about opening up and speaking out, and this must never once be looked at as a small step towards greater rewards. Public perceptions of an institution are increasingly potent.

The P Rama Rao committee currently auditing and reviewing DRDO has a few months left to deliver its hopefully authoritative and actionable report on revamping DRDO and the millions of little procedures that collectively make it such a sarkari experience for all stakeholders involved – the armed forces, the government and last, and far from least – young scientists at DRDO who would love to see the organization transform and reflect their own young creativity, dynamism and determination. Everything else, in most part, will follow. The exercise of commissioning studies on your reputation will only bring in that much more paper into an already bureaucratic labyrinth that is our system.

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