Why India's Governance Policies Often Ends up Being Suboptimal

To blame everything on implementation is a mistake – how we think about policy-making in India needs to change, too.

In India, when policies are made and implemented without the desired impact, the blame is often placed at the implementation end.

This blame is only partly correct. Often unintended consequences raise their ugly heads, new intermediaries spring up and the policy gets captured. Why does this happen repeatedly and why do we citizens accept it with helpless fatalism?

If the government makes use of principles, institutions, norms, values and rules through which public affairs are managed in the act of governance, policy making is a subset of actions to achieve the desired objective. It is underpinned by elements of participation, transparency in decision making, accountability, rule of law and predictability. Inevitably, it incorporates the use of economics, politics, sociology and law to handle the problems at hand or to signal pathways to solutions.

Hard evidence, logical analysis and technical theories surround policy making to achieve the goal of improving welfare. The main objective of policies is to provide social stability by reducing deprivation and social conflict.

Politics is pivotal here as in many languages, the term policy and politics are the same. How society’s problems are addressed by the politico-bureaucratic system is policy making. Inevitably, it will be influenced by personal ideology, constituent demand, public opinion and special interests. There are multiple actors and multiple competing agendas involved from the design to implementation stage. The grand objective is stability – in an unmistakable political process, there is a need for legitimation of policy choices.

Qualities of good policy will be forward looking, innovative and joined up. Structures required will be the institutional arrangement to support better policy making, and the politics part of it should be a sophisticated amalgamation of politics, evidence and theory. The alternative will mean leaving it to chance, personality and individual skill. The process part is a trade-off between written/planned policy on one hand and programmatic ad hoc decisions on the other. Participants must accept the rapidly changing, flexible and chaotic nature of decision making if they are to be effective. Strength of policy making is integral to the strength of the government as a whole, and that of the country at large.

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Policies essentially flow from problem discovery, followed by problem definition. Hence policies need to be designed, they cannot be conceived. Diagnosis of the problem is so important that with only a superficial understanding, problems end up being defined wrongly. Let’s look at the problem of our school education. When Operation Blackboard, started the diagnosis which led to problem definition was superficial. It was thought to be a quantity problem, through deep down it was a quality problem too. Children do not go to school if they do not gain much, if teachers are absent and the parents feel that there is no benefit in going to school. Much later, when the access issue was largely sorted out, policy makers woke up to the problem of quality of education – though they should have recognised it to begin with. Once the problem definition was inadequate and incomplete, the design problems also crept into the policy making. Design is neither a patchwork nor a copy of best practices.

Often, the wish to make a policy quickly leaves design flaws, which creates a recipe for convoluted and sub-par benefits. The temptation to roll out policies quickly leads to a rush to accept inadequate design, despite the lack of adequate information and data.

Once the policies are in place, the impact and efficiency must be tested by monitoring the process and evaluating the impact. This is where Indian policy making underperforms. Impact evaluation is too slow and too small, and willingness to acknowledge weak points is almost non-existent. This requires a level of honesty in the relationship between the politicians and the bureaucrats on one hand, and politics and society on the other, which in India is missing. Everyone tries to sweep it under the carpet, lest they get the blame.

Evaluation should have led to problem redefinition and possibly changes in policy. Because everyone in the policy spectrum is reluctant to admit weakness in the policy, the same old policy continues without being tweaked. The timeline of evaluation and policy making are normally out of sync. Departments also have the incentive and opportunity to tone down unfavourable findings. It also does not help that instead of carrying out pilot implementation to see what is working, what is likely to work and what will not work, a large roll out is done because large scope enables grandstanding.

Having overtly committed to a large scope, both politicians and bureaucrats find it difficult to roll back. In the case of MGNREGA, it was first limited to 200 districts which were vulnerable to drought and the scheme of 100 days of employment guarantee would have thrown up valuable feedback. But either because of pressure from activists or because of political attractiveness it was expanded to all 600 districts post haste with suboptimal results, and realistic and viable means of achieving policy goals were pushed away in the process.

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Next comes the problem of implementation, where various actors both in government and the private sector are involved. An inadequately designed policy also provides inadequate staff and funding for implementation, particularly at the grassroots level, while documentation requirement of a top-down programme remains substantive. In that landscape, significant discretion is given to the functionary, because of limited accountability with poor supervision and inadequate staffing. Veto points emerge in the nature of lack of support in implementation because of overlapping jurisdiction of political appointees vs career staff, between the federal government and the state government and because of conflicting priorities.

One more temptation is to make policies into laws. First of all, this makes things very rigid, when the requirement is flexibility. Then it is caught in the grid of legal process of lawyers and judges, where timely delivery of relief is the last priority. Judges are also partisan and driven by ideology, and leaving policy to them to interpret on the basis of exactitude of language is often as good as consigning it to wolves.

Fuzzy and porous boundaries between the state and society are redefined through the act of policy making. There are two dimensions to this; the state pursues policy-making as a strategy of governing the population and in the process the state also gets reconstituted. If the state finds it difficult to ring-fence programmes from capture, it weakens itself and its subsequent policies are created by a weaker state.

Left to bureaucrats, policy-making results in flawed, unrealistic and undesirable policies and without them owning up it becomes political predation. A bureaucrat comes in not only to guide the government through the process, but to have an objective of realistic policy which enhances welfare and is durable. Enlightened collaboration is key to achieving the sweet spot of policy, which we rarely see.

Satya Mohanty is former Secretary to the Government of India. The views expressed in this article are personal.