Guest post by Juthika Patankar

Decentralised Administration for Service Delivery


Guest post by Juthika Patankar, TIGR2ESS CSaP Policy Fellow

How can policy makers in central or state governments better integrate local authorities into decision-making processes around programmes and schemes for better delivery to citizens? How do we enable local authorities to best raise community consciousness for better education, agriculture extension, health, nutrition, sanitation, water and/or ecological balance? How can policy makers ensure full female participation in decision-making and delivery? Can the implementation of skill development schemes be leveraged to achieve the above? In May 2021, Juthika Patankar, a TIGR2ESS CSaP Policy Fellow, addressed these questions while exploring the role of decentralised administration for service delivery in India, and what she has learned from her fellowship thus far.

The above questions emanate from the core belief that democratic decentralised administration holds the key to better service delivery and ultimately sustainable development. Only through decentralised decision-making can we ensure: maximum stakeholder involvement in governance; optimum use of local resources; sustainability and build in flexibility for programme implementation to evolve continuously in line with people's needs, and vigilance in relation to environment awareness and protection. In India, government institutions are everywhere- in local government, agriculture extension, education, research, health, skill training; but we have not been able to make the best use of them because decision-making is not decentralised and because government employees lack exposure to training and motivation. Capacity-building of government manpower is sorely needed.

Academic research and field work, besides corporate and voluntary initiatives, is capable of engaging with the local community to identify and address specific development issues: whether foodgrains and consumption patterns for better nutrition, health care, water management, citizens' services delivery or recognition of women in the productive labour force. The dedicated work of academic researchers, NGOs, citizens' groups, economic interest shareholders and others has raised community consciousness. These are successful models by concerned groups to tackle human development issues through community participation. But in all these, what is the role of the State? What is the extent and usefulness of interface with government at the local level, and does such interface provide invaluable inputs for policymaking at the national level?

It seems apparent that notwithstanding the excellent work being done by diverse agencies involving people's participation, the engagement with local government authorities has been less than satisfactory. To start with, there is a top-down approach evident in all the efforts of such agencies. Programmes and projects are conceived based upon diligent research and inspiration. These are then taken to the people, the community, and implemented by dedicated armies of workers, volunteers, corporate professionals, zealous researchers who directly engage with the people. Local government functionaries are at best unobtrusive bystanders; at worst, they are irritants in the smooth implementation of fairly flawless schemes. Their co-operation in the work is somewhat shakily secured only because their higher government authorities at regional or national level have forced them to accept the presence and activities of such agencies.

To my mind, this goes against the principle of democratic decentralised government. Local government authorities and local elected bodies have a stake in local development. Development, its planning and implementation, must emanate from them, they must be principal participants if not drivers of the process. Only then will all such work become truly sustainable. Development work and development administration must be embedded in the mandate of local governments, as people's participation becomes total and meaningful only when it happens at the regulatory, political and decision-making levels of government as well as at the level of advocacy and implementation. The challenge then is to get local governments to work in tandem with all citizen groups' and other non-government efforts. I shall return to how this could be achieved later in this article in a subsection on enabling government functionaries to learn from consultants and NGOs.

Later in this article, I will address how leveraging skill development can illustrate the impact of decentralised administration and I will also explore the issue of full female participation and skills development.

There is a huge paramount issue in decentralised decision-making to render it truly decentralised and really decisive. This is the issue of financial resources. Apart from (and this is an enormous apart) the willingness of national and regional governments to concede space for decentralised administration to local governments in some spheres, these local governments would need an assured and preferably independent source of finances. Either there would have to be a total committed implementation of all statutory devolution of finances wherever such exists or and in addition to that, district governments (through their Committees) would need to have the freedom to pursue and adopt independent means of generating resources which they can deploy into their planning and execution of skill development. This alone would go a long way into answering the question of where the role of the state lies in community participation initiatives.

Decentralised administration is the only way forward to enable citizens to participate in making informed choices. Whether to tackle the horrors of a pandemic or to deal with socio-economic development for the greatest good of the greatest number, government and decision-making should be local and the experience of the local should inform the state and national level for useful policy-formulation flowing from the top.

Decentralising decision making from national to regional and district governments

I would illustrate my argument with the particular example of skill development and the respective roles of national, regional and district government functionaries and how they can engage with people. Skill development schemes in different trades and areas for diverse sections of the population or the population at large, have been conceived and launched by the Government of India and the various State governments. The policy planning and design of all such schemes has always been centralised. However District Skill development Committees consisting of nearly all district-level development officials are also in existence and have been tasked with drawing up district skill development plans. Now, while the actual delivery of skill training involves training partners, subject experts, industry stakeholders, curriculum designers et al, their collective work would be so much more productive and with definite direction towards objectives, if the district government were to engage with them at every stage, from the choice of courses and trainees to employment opportunities.

Such decentralised decision-making would necessarily factor in local resources, locally available infrastructure and local aspirations of youth. Skill training would then be accessible to all sections of society and course correction could happen immediately whenever required, based upon community needs and experience. For informed, far-seeing decision-making, the local authorities would need to be themselves trained, from time to time, in subject specific areas, leadership, inclusivity, regional and national economic priorities and their implications and opportunities for district economic planning and the dynamics of increased stakeholder participation.

The SANKALP programme of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Govt of India, seeks to improve skill development delivery to people by focusing on decentralised skill planning. To this end, it aims to equip local authorities with the knowledge, tools and exposure to engage fruitfully with the community, its needs and aspirations. It seeks to link the community with the means and opportunities to fulfil such needs and aspirations. This entails pressing into service the huge training infrastructure of the government already available at all levels and in various local languages. It further entails reaching out to national-level and other eminent academic institutions and industry experts to engage with local administration, (District Skill Committees) to provide them the technical knowledge to plan for skill development.

Finally, and in addition to all this, (and what is one of the big takeaways from this Fellowship for me), is the recognition of the need to get district government involved with the diverse, primarily citizen-led, initiatives in skill and all development and work with them, co-opting them as mentors, group leaders, advisers or resource persons in the government planning and policy exercise. This would be true decentralisation involving people's participation. The learning from the work of the District Skill Committees must feed into policy-making at the state and national levels.

Enabling government functionaries to learn from consultants and NGOs

I would venture to suggest a way in which existing government functionaries at district level could be effectively co-opted in making all development projects, government or non-government, deliver. Today in India, at all levels there is seen to be a growing divide between government employees and 'consultants', those private sector individuals employed on contract by government, directly or indirectly, for their expert domain knowledge and corporate savviness. The latter are persons with sound academic qualifications, technical knowhow, proficiency in English and easy access, apparently, to both the corporate world and academia. On the other hand, traditional government employees are demotivated, not always up-to-date in domain knowledge, limited in their interactions to either district or state government officials, constrained by the need and their own ability only to work in the language of the state. Yet they have enormous actual experience of people and situations, their local moorings enable them to connect fully at local level and they are that mandatory part of government machinery without which the engine would not move. So one way of uniting the relative strengths of these two groups in a common cause would be for all non-government agencies who are into development work, to 'hire' the already existing government officials in their projects. This could work as explained below.

A voluntary or corporate sector agency engaged in implementing a development project would need constant interface with local government to fulfil regulations, obtain access to institutions, documents, groups, etc, and to get the unstinted cooperation of all functionaries in the field for the successful execution of their project. For this such agency could shortlist one or two or more government officials in crucially relevant posts whose total cooperation or inputs would further their project. They could then arrange with the government to hire these officials at remunerative rates high enough to compare with their own project personnel. Government would have to tweak its own rules to allow such officials to retain their original government posts, continue with their routine tasks and also, in addition, enjoy the benefit of working for the agency for a pay. Naturally, the government would need to ensure propriety, see that there is no 'conflict of interest' or any compromise with the use of public money. Further if the said officials were actually hired by the agency to perform tasks overlapping or similar to their own government tasks, the purpose of effective delivery would be served better.

This method of limited period engagement of appropriate government functionaries by private agencies for development projects in addition to these officials' continuing engagement with their own government duties would result in motivating them and giving them adequate exposure and training vis-a-vis their professional 'consultant' counterparts. Capacity-building would happen in government with little cost to government and such employees would enjoy the prospect of renewed motivation and career mobility. The actual details of how to address the key issues of accountability, transparency and probity in public expenditure would of course have to be undertaken by government but these are not insurmountable issues and there would be no need to violate the sanctity of public spending rules.

Women’s participation in training and the labour force

The notion of people's participation in development administration or indeed anywhere should automatically mean full participation by women. However when women are often not part of the decision-making even within families, it would be naive to assume that they play a significant role in community decisions.

When we focus on female participation in the labour force, in India, and also examine the backward linkage of skill training to greater employment, we notice some disadvantages to women in programme design as well as implementation.

Women's development is inextricably linked to child development and child welfare. This immediately deprives women of their status as full-fledged human beings in their own right without reference to children. There is absolutely no justification for clubbing the 'welfare' of women and children together as though women alone bear the responsibility and relation to children. With this kind of myopic and prejudiced thinking, there is no critical objective analysis of what opportunities are really accessible to a girl in society whether in education, skill training, employment or health.

Skill training planners and executors usually push women into 'homebound', non-public space trades. Garment-stitching, weaving, basket-making, beauty treatment, household food processing are some of the favourite options kept for women. As a logical corollary to this women are nudged towards self-employment and not wage-employment. The typical assumptions are that women can work from their homes, they can work in sorority in women self-help groups, they are counted for all purposes only after their permanent residence is determined by their husbands' homes. Access to credit if required is 'facilitated' through self-help groups. This stereotyped thinking of policy planners and executors needs to change. Women should be equally pushed towards wage-employment and exercise their free choice in this regard. This would put the onus of making wage employment gender-neutral on the government. Public spaces and private work spaces have to be made available to women such that women can move, occupy and work in them at ease and on terms of equality with men.

The issues which should be foregrounded for ensuring maximum women participation in public activity are access to convenient public transport, law and order, adequate civic amenities designated for the use of women in public spaces and inside workplaces, inclusion as individuals in any programme without reference to 'family', grievance redressal mechanisms, adequate visibility of women in managerial and supervisory positions which would instil confidence in fresh women recruits, regular gender-sensitisation training for men (and women) at workplaces, in educational institutions etc. Job roles when formulated should be examined critically through the lens of gender - most reveal an in-built male bias.

With specific reference to skill development, even work traditionally and conventionally assigned to women and done by women needs to be analysed for scope of identifying its inherent skill requirement. Recognition of the skills intrinsically required in 'women's work' is necessary and should be documented for greater skill training, higher commensurate wages and charting of a career path. Apart from this the focus of advocacy and mobilisation for skill training in the case of women should be on the girl as an individual human being not women as a generic group.

For sharper focus on justice to women in work and for ensuring full female participation, decentralised decision-making at local level is the way to inclusion and attention to individual aspirations. Especially in the case of women, the micro-level experience of recognition of their needs, their aspirations, their constraints and how best these can be addressed by district planners and administrators should provide invaluable inputs for macro-level policy formulation and design.

Photo credit: Indian Institute of Management Banglalore