Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Scaling up 'transactional' reforms

The biggest challenge facing many of the Indian government’s marquee Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is its effective implementation. In fact, this challenge is true of many other public policy interventions.

The conventional scale-up strategy for any program involves uniform norms and components, implementation guidelines, and monitoring protocols. This one-size-fits-all approach, while appropriate for some activities, fails badly for many others.

Consider the two examples. One, construction of school buildings is largely a logistics based activity, to be implemented in scale by following guidelines and progress monitored by collecting quantifiable information. Much the same applies to building any other infrastructure, supplying goods, enrolling children, and so on. These activities are amenable to the conventional one-size-fits-all implementation. Two, ensuring that class-room instruction translates into student learning outcomes is more transaction, where outcomes are critically dependent on the quality of engagement that takes place in the classroom. It is difficult to reduce such quality-driven transactional interventions into a set of guidelines, much less monitor them using quantifiable parameters. The same holds true of the engagement between a physician and patient, an extension service officer and farmer, a nutritionist and mother, and so on. In fact, it is true of any intervention that demand behavioral changes like maintaining cleanliness, eschewing open defecation, conserving energy and water, encouraging savings habit, and so on. Such activities fail the test of top-down implementation.

The economist Lant Pritchett describes the former as “thin” activities, which are informational, and the latter as “thick” activities, which are transactional. The former are more logistics bound, whose scale up can be achieved through information based monitoring. In contrast, the latter are transactional, whose success is critically dependent on the quality of human interface at the cutting edge of implementation. Therefore, the achievement of learning outcomes is a function of the class teacher's ability and willingness to teach in a manner that enables student learning. Much the same applies to doctors treating patients, extension officers advising farmers, and nurses promoting the importance of nutrition among expectant mothers. They are also true of behavioral change campaigns like eliminating open-defecation, preventing littering, encouraging savings habits, or conserving water and energy. In all these cases, the repeated transactional nature of the activity makes it difficult to reliably capture its quality. They cannot therefore be decreed into implementation.

An examination of successful implementation of such interventions reveals a non-linear implementation trajectory. Far from universal, one-size-fits-all implementation, such interventions get scaled up in an organic manner. A much discussed recent example is Bangladesh’s impressive success with its campaign to rid the country off open-defecation.

Such interventions therefore require a more nuanced and gradual scale-up strategy. One approach would be to identify target groups where the program is likely to be more receptive and encourage them as internal champions of change. This could be done by supporting and building capacity in such positive deviances within the target group. Each positive deviance would act as a domino, with the potential to favorably influence those groups within its network or surroundings. Further, community mobilization is vital to the success of such interventions. This requires enlisting the support of local non-profits and people’s organizations. The intervention will take firm root over a period of time.

Given the constraint of time for leaders in electoral democracies, a two-pronged approach can be adopted. While a basic version of the intervention is implemented across the state or country in the business as usual sense, a more focused implementation strategy can be adopted for the identified positive deviances. Public policy should help expedite program diffusion by close engagement with the positive deviances, holding them up as local change agents, supporting leaders inclined to whole-heartedly embrace the intervention, building capacity among those positively inclined groups, etc.

Programs like SBM and efforts to improve learning outcomes would do well to take a leaf out of this play book and embrace this nuanced scale-up strategy. With SBM, those already existing shining examples of small towns and villages which have done remarkably well to improve their sanitation through community engagement should be encouraged to assume the role of spear-heading the campaign, atleast in their neighborhood.

Another approach would be to focus initially on interventions that can become totemic symbols of the campaign and generate adequate positive externalities that spill over into the remaining parts. For example, a SBM campaign focused on keeping important public places – transit stations, parks and squares, schools and hospitals, and government offices – clean can, over time, potentially nudge the civic sensibilities of citizens into maintaining personal hygiene and keeping their environment clean. Such campaigns would have to be supported with adequate personnel and financing, and complemented with focused and long-drawn monitoring.

In any case, standard norms and components based, one-size-fits-all scale-up strategies with aggressive time-lines are most certain to be ineffective with such interventions. A more nuanced and  multi-dimensional approach sustained over a longer period may be necessary. 


Pegasus said...

Interesting analysis but are you not being too simplistic? Places like Singapore or KL are able to achieve super clean cities only with top down and heavy handed enforcement.
At the same time in places like HK despite super clean main cities, nearby places like Kowloon are filthy - so the same people who appreciate HK are willing to accept the unclean environments a few kilometres out.
Are there other dimensions perhaps the civic behaviours cultivated in kids or existence of town planning and administration that has well defined garbage/litter management workflows that drive a more sustainable change over time. Aren't those basics missing in most Indian cities to begin with?
Your arguments about bottom up change being the way do make sense in Indian context with incredibly large, scattered and resource poor rural geography.

Mahmud Firoz said...

nice post