Functional Assignment: Some (more) Thoughts on the Evolving Subject
By Vincy Davis, 20 Oct 2015

(This is part 2 of 2 entries on Functional Assignment by the same author.)

In my previous blog post I initiated a discussion on some of the lessons I learnt from the workshop organised by LOGIN on Functional Assignment. In this post, I will be sharing more of my takeaways from the workshop:

Unbundling” the modalities of decentralisation in light of FA – Conversations centred on the choice of the most appropriate mode of decentralisation were particularly interesting to me as we were made to question the fundamental choices that shape our respective countries. In the Indian context, ‘devolution’ is clearly idealised. Debates are generally carried out on the method/process through which devolution is to be carried out and rarely on whether or not devolution itself is the way to go.

In the 90’s, Local Self-Governments (LSGs) gained national recognition in India through Constitutional amendments. The task of actually devolving functions to the LSGs, however, was left to the states. Since then, functional devolution has been patchy and leaves much to be desired. Moreover, in practice, the Indian administration primarily functions on the principle of deconcentration, preferring to provide the bulk of public services through line departments and parallel agencies. In case of subnational governments, the administration prefers to engage them through delegation of duties in the area of programme implementation.

Undertaking FA in India will force the relevant stakeholders to assess the modes of decentralisation appropriate for different levels of government. It will also be important to address the possibility that multiple modes of decentralisation may be appropriate for different levels. There isn’t much on this topic in the current literature on FA and thus might be worth exploring further.

Lost in translation – One only has to go through the 2014-15 Devolution Report to appreciate the research team’s struggle to rank states on the Devolution Index, owing to the adoption of different definitions of fundamental concepts (such as the 3 Fs themselves) by different states! This lack of consensus on key terms needs to be resolved before a country undertakes FA, unless one wishes to witness turf wars resulting from different definitions. In fact, the term “Functional Assignment” itself can cause confusion since FA doesn’t merely involve assignment of functions, but also of functionaries and funds. Perhaps a more encompassing term could be devised to bind the entire process.

Matching functionaries and funds with the functions “map” – What remains unclear is how functionaries can be meaningfully assigned to functions allocated to the appropriate tiers. This is a question of matching capacity with the task at hand and not just assigning the job to the person with the most qualifications. What are the criteria that should be applied in this context? Whose capacities are we assessing in the first place? Only the officials at the frontline or even the policy makers or members of the steering committee that would guide the FA process? What sort of preparation must these individuals undergo before launching into a dialogue on FA? Similarly, how does one match funds with functions? These are some of the “dilemmas” which were discussed in the workshop but left largely as questions to probe further.

Listening to the discussions on FA concepts and the experiences of other countries in this area, I realized that India has a long way to go before it can truly practice what it preaches. Administrative decentralisation has barely kept pace with the movement on political decentralisation in the country. Moreover, what we peddle in the name of decentralisation itself is quite muddled. When we talk of FA implementation in India, we are talking about a process that could take years to unfold. It could mean undertaking multiple rounds of discussions with stakeholders, pilots to see what works and what does not, and “change management” to contain the effects of structural shifts at an unprecedented scale. Coming to a basic consensus on the abovementioned issues will be essential if we are to even begin having a meaningful conversation on the subject.