Diana Philip, Senior Advisor, Government Relations, Dell
Government Affairs professionals of a corporate entity in India engage in the crucial work of being front line responders within the commonly known trifecta of politics, polity and policy. As such, the rules of ethics play a critical role in introducing checks and balances within this niche area of work which requires constant engagement with the government.
Post-Independence in 1947, there came the advent of liberal democracy and a planned economy, leading to an elaborate regime of License Raj (Raj in Hindi signifies ‘Rule’). This meant a steady interaction with the government and especially the bureaucracy for approvals and favors cannot be ruled out. In 1991, with the liberalization measures came the abolishment of such industrial licensing in most sectors. The practice of interaction with the government and industry evolved over time.
The Industry chambers being a classic example of the evolving relationship forming a communication channel between government and industry. This further advanced to having expert in-house leaders in companies working in the field of government affairs and public policy. They help employers navigate through the complex web of public policy and regulatory environment and equally important s they assist the government in understanding the emerging issues. In the tech space, this could range from engaging in policy debates on Intellectual Property, data privacy, cyber security, smart cities or forming partnerships with governmental bodies and intuitions on digitization of education or citizen services, artificial intelligence, emerging tech and myriad other matters.
A rapidly changing political and economic environment can always have an impact on an industry and this requires professionals who can maintain external relationships with stakeholders, form alliances and be able to anticipate political and social trends which is the key for market success of any entity. During the COVID-19 crisis, when India was under the most stringent lockdowns in the world, government affairs had to not only forecast and predict future economic, social and health trends but had to help the company through complex governmental orders, permits and e-passes in order to sustain the business.
This close coordination with the government requires that any legal and ethical requirements governing such interaction and relationships must be abided. India has no such codified legal requirement, although there have been calls for the same from various quarters which ranged from the expert group under the planning commission to private members bill tabled in the parliament.
Monitoring corporate political activity globally
There are only about 22 countries in the world have taken measures towards codification. US and Canada have legislations regulating lobbying including anti-corruption measures. US considers lobbying a right guaranteed under the constitution and therefore has stringent rules and responsibilities. This also leads companies to engage in a transparent manner in what is termed as ‘corporate political activity (CPA)’. Moreover, there are regional blocks that have taken significant measures regulating CPA. The rules of the European Parliament were amended recently in 2019 to bring in transparency measures.
The OECD in fact has a ‘coalition of influencers’ comprising of various stakeholders including the private sector to examine the effect of vested interests on public policy.
Tabrez Ahmad, Group Director, Government Affairs, Dell
Here, it is important to note that in India the term lobbying is often viewed with suspicion and negativity— mired with several scandals and linked to corruption. The Government affairs practice is therefore kept within the confines of advocacy and working with the bureaucratic arm of the government, governmental institutions, policy makers, industry chambers, non-profit or non-governmental authorities, united nations and inter-governmental bodies.
The temptation to manipulate
What happens when people go ‘around’ or ‘outside’ the process? In a competitive business environment, the temptation to manipulate others or gain undue advantage can exist. A case that emerged not too long ago was of the illicit funds (15 million dollars) routed through middlemen to reach Indian officials, make modifications in the procurement requirements of strategic defense equipment to allow a foreign entity to re-enter bidding process. India’s prevention of corruption act prohibits such activities. But the ethical principles that many companies follow including Dell ensures that such behavior is kept in check. No engagement with the government or external stakeholders can be via any form of inducements or gifts or incentives. A quid pro quo arrangement is considered an ethical violation.
Multi-stakeholder dialogue and transparency
A deliberative dialog amongst all relevant stakeholders is considered an important element to transparent ethical practice and it is very common for government affairs to actively participate in private public stakeholder consultations and even spearhead the same; thereby engaging in what can be termed coined as ‘communicative action’ which was proposed by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in 1984 as a process to introduce objective facts, evidence-based policy responses and an ethical construction of narratives.
This dialog becomes even more important when one considers the pace of innovation and technological change. Policy and a bureaucratic environment have its own limitations to deal with tech disruptions. Government affairs, therefore, must tread the fine line to balance this using policy to promote innovation which is ethical and sustainable.
Ethical narratives and facts
The ethics of stakeholder engagement in the government affairs practice also dictates that no misrepresentation of any kind is made. A case in point was of a certain set of telecom spectrum licenses that were issued by the government to ineligible applicants who had deliberately suppressed facts, disclosed incomplete information and submitted fictitious documents. Such actions are a complete violation of ethical codes and grounds for immediate termination of the job itself in most multinational entities.
Moving forward: governance and ethical standards
The ethical standards as mentioned above often form the pillar of government affairs work of most multinationals and this applies regardless of any geographical boundaries. There is certainly more to be desired including related enactments or harmonized ethical standards not just in India but also globally. However, governance mechanism itself is evolving in India. It is now the advent of e-governance with clarion calls for ‘less government and more governance’, thereby bringing in greater transparency at all levels. The hope is that this continues to evolve at a steady pace with any ethical abuse being viewed through the lens of the Kantian moral theory as violations of human dignity itself.
About the Author:
Tabrez Ahmad is Group Director, Government Affairs and Public Policy at Dell Technologies. Prior to Dell, he worked at OPPI, FICCI, Reed Elsevier, George Washington University, Flipkart, eBay, AB InBev and Microsoft in India, China and America. Tabrez is chair in Indian National Bar Association and on the board of The Dialogue. He did Pro Bono with Louisiana Bar, South Asian Bar Association in Washington DC, Partnership for Safe Medicine and FLO in India. Tabrez has completed MBA from IMI, MCA from Bharat University, LLM from George Washington University and Executive courses in AI and Blockchain from Massachusetts Institutes of Technology.
Diana Philip works as Senior Advisor, Government Affairs & Public Policy with Dell. She has a decade of experience heading and managing initiatives in the field of Public International law, Foreign Policy, and Global Foresight with UN bodies and inter-governmental entities. She has worked on track-two diplomacy initiatives between countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia has expertise in advising governments on conflict resolution and prevention matters as well as on technology and existential risks. She led initiatives in partnership with European nations and global and regional financial institutions on cross-sectoral issues involving environment, transboundary water finance, peace, security and terrorism and Artificial Intelligence. Diana has an LL.M from Harvard Law School, U.S.A. She is the co-founder of the Harvard Law School Women’s Alliance in India (HLSWA).