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Poor implementation of Indian policies is oldest excuse. Real problem is in field administration

Panchayats or local elected governments are supposed to lead socio-economic development but they have no funds to spend as per needs.

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The growing political importance of ‘good governance’ in politics today brings the focus back on India’s chronic implementation failure problem. It pervades all development sectors like education, health care, law enforcement and infrastructure, but our understanding of what causes these failures is imperfect. 

In fact, ‘implementation failure’ is embedded in the very structure and functioning of our implementing organisations, collectively known as ‘field administration’. This emerged in a case study of a district, which is the apex unit of field administration with an average population of about 1.9 million. The district was located in central India, and the fieldwork was conducted in 2017-18. 

The structure and functioning of field administration were delineated through a detailed analysis of 56 field organisations, interviews with elected panchayat representatives (PRs), officials, frontline functionaries, personnel from non-government organisations and journalists, as well as focus group discussions. 

Structural fault lines  

The case study revealed disempowered panchayats, a fragmented administrative structure and a narrow role-definition of the implementing organisations. This limited the capacity for context-relevant and coordinated action. As per the law, panchayats, or local elected governments, were to lead socio-economic development. But they had almost no funds to spend as per needs. Instead, 37 state departments operated separate organisations and programmes, to which nearly all funds were linked. 

Field officials could not act in response to contextual needs as departmental programmes specified the activities to be undertaken. For example, drinking water shortage, identified as a key problem by people, was caused by the falling groundwater table and subsequent drying up of water sources. But departmental programmes focussed on establishing and repairing hand pumps, and field officials could not address the core issue. The problem was exacerbated by the marginalisation of panchayats.

While several panchayat representatives understood local issues and were motivated to resolve them, this potential remained unexploited.   

Coordinated action was difficult because of the very large number of departmental organisations. Further, the coordinating mechanism was fuzzy. Though as per law, panchayats were mandated to coordinate socio-economic development, in practice, departments delegated authority to the district collector (DC). Consequently, panchayat representatives were in constant conflict with officials, who followed the directions of their departments and the DC. In parallel, the DC had powers under 71 laws and chaired or was member secretary of 82 committees, an impossible mandate. Committee meetings were postponed often.  

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Shortfalls in human resources 

An inadequate number of personnel, lack of expertise and a perverse incentive structure for employees, whittled the capacity to deliver. Though the district had nearly 12,000 government personnel, grassroots field organisations were poorly staffed. 

For instance, anganwadi workers were tasked with monitoring malnourished children, ensuring vaccination, providing pre-school education, advising mothers, and other activities. Consequently, in three out of five sample anganwadi centres, no pre-school education was imparted. Given the structural fragmentation, sample district and sub-district organisations had meagre managerial and expert staff, usually just one per organization, and the problem was exacerbated by vacancies in 41 per cent posts. 

A positive aspect was that government employees were educationally well-qualified. But the district had no expert in human resource management. Officials lacked access to legal experts, and expertise for social communication and mobilisation was sparse. Moreover, departmental organisations lacked the multiple skills needed for their activities. For instance, the School Education Department lacked specialists for community mobilisation, gender-related issues, and education of marginalised children among other subjects. The Women and Child Welfare Department, charged with addressing child malnutrition, had no nutritionists. 

 The incentive structure for employees was skewed. For permanent employees, reasonable salaries and other benefits combined with slow, seniority-based promotions provided little motivation. Worse, as postings were patronage-based, employees did well by pleasing patrons, not by working hard.  Several officials were involved in rent-seeking rackets along with powerful politicians, while others were transferred for resisting illegitimate orders. The tenure for district organisational heads was less than a year on average, and politically connected employees could not be disciplined.  

Contractual employees, mainly frontline functionaries, lacked job security, were paid less than the permanent employees, and had no promotion avenues. They had formed associations which agitated for better service conditions. At times, the government capitulated. For instance, school teachers had improved their salaries significantly through such agitations. Consequently, contractual employees benefitted from skilful agitation and negotiation, rather than hard work. 

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Unproductive working style 

Importantly, the effectiveness of field organisations was jeopardised as they were not ‘learning organisations’. They did not acquire new skills and insights to include them in their standard operating procedures. This was partly an outcome of extreme centralisation at the state level. Departments set targets, issued detailed directions and reviewed frequently. For example, the School Education Department prescribed not just the curriculum and textbooks, but also the school timetable and the pace of lessons. Consequently, the best teachers among those interviewed were often in conflict with the authorities as they tried innovative teaching methods and followed students’ learning pace. Several officials cited instances where rigid guidelines forced them to turn down legitimate demands from citizens. 

This centralisation had shaped the very definition of ‘work’ in the field. Field officials described their most important activities as implementing schemes, following directions and supervising junior officials, not analysing local issues and initiating relevant activities. Moreover, when directed by the state government, they performed tasks outside their mandate, such as sanitation, tree plantation and cultural matters, which reduced time on substantive work. Further, the state government undertook frequent ‘campaigns’ on various issues. Officials reported that before one campaign could take off, a new one began, and long-term tasks were neglected.  

Instead of analysis and strategy formulation, field officials relied on hierarchy and routinised processes. Several interviewees said that they could not question senior officials. Extensive data was collected on students’ performance on tests, but not analysed and used merely for reporting. Little attempt was made to learn from other agencies. For example, officials charged with reducing domestic violence were oblivious to the successful strategies followed by the self-help group federation in the district. Schools and anganwadi centres had to maintain 20 and 15 registers respectively, which were monitored strictly. The most frequent activity of anganwadi workers observed was filling up registers. In schools, teachers engaged with students only half the time, being busy preparing reports, attending meetings etc. In three of the five sample schools, many children in grades four and five could not read. 


Rampant rent-seeking sabotaged the outcomes further, as funds were pilfered and officials colluded with law-breakers. There was extensive illegal sand- mining from the river beds, only possible with official collusion. Consequently, water evaporated faster, adding to the water shortage. People reported that they had to pay bribes at fixed rates for every government service. Forest guards extorted money from poor tribals by confiscating their tools. 

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Uninformed reforms 

‘Reforms’ can have unexpected results. For instance, currently, increasing the use of technology is a major reform thrust. In the case study, technology improved several processes such as record maintenance, accounting, and case work management among other things. However, officials also reported increased centralisation, a core problem, as state-level reviews increased through video conferences.  

Clearly, if public debates about improving service delivery remain uninformed regarding the real problems of implementation, the attempted reforms may be unfruitful, and even cause more damage. Without a radical reform of field administration based on a deep understanding of the issues, better public services are unlikely.  

Rashmi Sharma is a Senior Visiting Fellow ICRIER, and a former IAS officer. 

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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