Local Interpretations of Implementation and Governance that Work
By Pritha Ghosh, 09 Sep 2016

Intent begins to take a beating when vision is cautiously tamed to become acceptable policy. At the end of its journey through pristine development planning checkboxes, born 30,000 feet above contextual reality, intent can be elusive in the programme design. Sadly, this is not news. It falls within tolerance afforded ever incremental improvements in the politicised agenda of development. Sadder still, is that this off-the-mark design is drilled down as a list of disjointed to-dos through the unshakeable, officious cascade onto the long-suffering frontline bureaucrat’s desk.

At this stage, the only task more tedious than implementing hand-me-down programmes, is to fulfil the demand that it be monitored. But monitored it is. The most visible, and therefore the least telling and easiest to stage, is crammed into sheaves of forms. The resulting busywork lulls all concerned into thinking they are working hard to contribute to the good of the people – the only party left out of any critical decision making in the process. 

Accountability Initiative (AI) works in Rajasthan. We support the frontline bureaucracy to accept and nurture the participation of the School Management Committee (SMC) as a collaborator to deliver quality learning outcomes through informed participation in fiscal governance at the school level. The policy and the law, the state rules and the administrative structure being what it is, AI walks the distance in the headmasters’ shoes as s/he manages the circumstances of his assignment. In over a year of doing so, and despite the small sample, there is evidence that program design can be highly effective when led by the people most affected by the problem and outcomes of an intervention. Our suggestions to the Government are built around solutions that are created by their own foot soldiers to improve program design, its governance and accountability, and therefore, outcomes as envisioned in policy.

For example, the compulsory membership of women in the configuration of a School Management Executive Committee (SMEC) is intended to ensure that they, along with a representation of every social group that comprises the parent community, co-govern public education. We found, that none of the 42 women in the 6 SMECs we follow, had stood for elections, none knew about their role as an SMEC member, none attended meetings regularly, and, none spoke in the presence of the men of the SMEC (their discomfort compounded by the fact that the male members are senior relatives).

These designated placeholders for power, are not representative of the community, and include the anganwadi worker (a Government employee); and, daughters-in-law of the most influential (the Sarpanch, or the richest businessman in the locality, or the most senior member of the highest class in the community). We even met an officious middle-aged man who respectfully addressed himself as Sarpanch-pati (the officiating Sarpanch by virtue of being the Sarpanch’s husband). The rule that guardians are allowed to be members has been warped to mean grandparents, such that the male members are mostly powerful senior citizens. The school is the low-hanging stage for local politics. No policy, program or administration protects or prepares a hapless headmaster from the powers that be.

However, when program design was adapted to the context it proved effective. AI’s effort over half a year to craft spaces where women could participate in a solution that worked for them, was rewarded with candour. The women’s meeting is facilitated separately by a female teacher. Children of the higher classes are often included in the women’s group. We have observed they support each other’s learning.

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Headmasters share the women’s point of view with the men and joint decisions are taken, that are documented in the minutes. The recommendation to the Government being that the teacher elected to the SMEC of a different gender than the head of school, be trained to facilitate SMEC meetings and, that schools are provided with a list of small-group activities that are relevant to women and include children, which can guide their SMEC meetings.

Similarly, SMEC meetings, ordered every month, it is assumed, need to start and end with all members present. In a forum for accountability that is meant to nurture diversity, this is rarely possible. The only people with enough control over their resources to predict and plan the use of their time are inevitably the most powerful, few and not representative of the parent body.

Motivated headmasters work around the problem. Conversations begin at the homes of the poorest as the headmaster goes to the homes and work places of the SMEC members to call them for meetings. They continue through the day, of the day of the meeting, with women members as and when they have the chance to come by the school for a few hours. Our recommendation to the Government being to identify fiscal issues that need to be raised in SMEC meetings, document and cross verify data and opinion on planning and implementation using simple forms that are then submitted to and used by the system. The simplified forms and, the means to train the headmasters and the SMEC members have been submitted too. AI is now working on suggesting a more actionable process for the information to be included in district planning.

Like all our development colleagues at the grassroots, AI finds hope in the character of individuals, and the space fueled by sincerity and goodwill. Its naiveté in the field is tempered with clear-eyed academic analysis of observed evidence, and followed up with ongoing dialogue with an attentive, if resigned State Government in Rajasthan.

Pritha Ghosh is Programme Lead: Strategy and Implementation, at Accountability Initiative. Her role is to develop a strategic implementation vision and plan for Accountability Initiative’s work at the state and district level with a view to ensure that Accountability Initiative’s research translates in to a reform agenda on the ground.