The Indian states’ struggles with getting stuff done are well documented. Even when programs are apparently well designed, they generally stumble at implementation. This implementation deficit has become a reflection of weak state capability.
This malaise afflicts government agencies at all levels and across states in varying degrees. It is as much applicable to service delivery with welfare programs as it is to the large-scale regulatory failures and resultant corruption scandals that dominate headline news.
So how it is that Indian bureaucracy delivers spectacularly with programs like Pulse Polio, elections, and Kumbh Mela? What explains the handful of outstanding examples of successes with improving maternal and child health outcomes, or women’s empowerment, or increasing access to sanitation that occasionally come from various corners of India? There are two possible answers.
One, and relevant to the first question, is that our state is exceptional at doing things that have short duration and clearly defined destination. A common thread that goes through all these activities is meticulous planning which maps functionaries to task and time, simple and clearly defined monitoring goals, rigorous supervision, and insulation from political influence. This is generally achieved through a massive mobilization of the entire local administration, often augmented with external manpower. It helps that the short duration of these activities allows for such cross-departmental mobilization. All this is underpinned by a strong political and bureaucratic commitment at the highest levels to achieve the objective.
The success with these activities stand in stark contrast to the egregious failure with implementation of regular government programs in the same area by the same personnel. It shines light on the sources of their implementation failure. An apolitical, adequately staffed and appropriately trained bureaucracy, when monitored rigorously gets things done. It is no surprise that all these ingredients are deficient in regular administration of government programs.
The other examples of success are, most often, a result of individual initiative. A few fiercely committed officers bring great passion and effort into planning and implementing programs. Their energy and leadership masks the chronic deficiencies in state capability and results in the positive deviance.
There are a few features that inform the actions of all such successful officials. They make detailed plans, with clearly defined intermediate milestones and final outcomes with timelines, all of which can be monitored.
They rely on some improvised information reporting system to rigorously monitor compliance. Some of the more tech-savvy among them use computer applications for internet-based reporting. Others rely on brute force reviews, done with unfailing regularity. These reviews are generally done personally at a painstaking level of granularity, to identify weaknesses and poor performers, which are then followed-up and addressed. It is no accident that their reporting systems are generally at variance from the ineffectual routine state or nation-wide reporting systems for the same program or activity.
Another prong of their monitoring is intensive field inspections, most often done randomly and without intimation so as to validate the information from the aforementioned reports. Such personal inspections, which are often followed up with strong and certain disciplinary action on errant officials, are a strong deterrent against slacking. But given the large geographical jurisdictions, such personal inspections take up a disproportionately large amount of time and effort, and involve unfavorable work trade-offs.
A handful of motivated and sincere sub-ordinates are co-opted as internal champions in these efforts. In a few cases, committed local non-profits become important partners. The smarter among them keep open active feedback channels - through inspections and interactions with field functionaries, citizens, and political representatives - that reliably convey information on the actual implementation.
Though all these are the physical ingredients of routine bureaucratic implementation, its actual realization in a typical bureaucratic environment is unfortunately very infrequent. It is commonplace that officials are severely handicapped by an enfeebled administrative machinery, whose weaknesses are exacerbated by inadequate, poorly trained, and dis-illusioned staff. Most often, they are left to fend for themselves, in completely unknown terrain, with just a handful of people for support.
The positive deviance is due to the extraordinary level of direct personal involvement of the official. It requires huge mental bandwidth for information processing and monitoring, the ability and commitment for which is understandably possessed by only a handful of very sincere and energetic officials. Their success is despite grave deficiencies in state capability and a triumph over extreme adversity. But this triumph is, most often, a pyrrhic victory. Reflecting the deeply personal nature of such interventions, all such successes are most likely to be short-lived, failing to outlive the officials themselves.
It is therefore no surprise that mundane activities like running mid-day meal kitchens or distributing old age pensions to beneficiaries or delivering ante-natal services to pregnant women appear insurmountable systemic challenges. All these activities fail the test of routinized impersonal administration, and require the dominant presence of an exceptional bureaucrat.
Though the main focus here is on the role of All India Service (AIS) officers, much the same applies to other non-AIS officials of the state government. The successful among them overcome much greater adversity than a similar AIS officer. The point of this post is as much to highlight why things sometimes appear to work in certain places as to why its systemic replication may be difficult given our current state capability.
A bureaucracy is an impersonal rules-based organization of a group of people who work together to achieve certain defined outcomes. Bureaucracies therefore have to work on their systemic strengths rather than the personal initiative of individual bureaucrats. A capable bureaucracy is one which delivers outcomes when administered by the average bureaucrat, rather than being reliant on the serendipitous presence of an exceptional bureaucrat. The typical Indian bureaucracy, at all levels, is most likely to end up short on this test.