Civil servants as change-makers

Based on years of fieldwork, Akshay Mangla’s book shows how bureaucrats influence outcomes by enabling community participation and local ownership.

Published : Jun 12, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

An open-air class at Joba Attpara village, Paschim Bardhaman district in West Bengal, in September 2021 when schools were shut during the COVID pandemic.

An open-air class at Joba Attpara village, Paschim Bardhaman district in West Bengal, in September 2021 when schools were shut during the COVID pandemic. | Photo Credit: RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS

“Will it work on the ground? What do you think?” is a question any senior bureaucrat designing a policy intervention should ask field-level stakeholders. Researchers have often pointed out that in developing countries institutions are too weak to implement policies effectively. India is a diverse country with wide variations in its implementation of policies, across not only geography but also policy areas.

During short-term disaster responses like the evacuation of people before a cyclone, there is a single chain of command, and States can execute this effectively. In mission mode, such as during polio immunisation campaigns, States execute effectively. However, the performance of States across more complex health and education services tends to be more varied. It is acknowledged that the best policy design is that which succeeds in practice. Why do some policies work on the ground and others flounder?

Making Bureaucracy Work: Norms, Education, and Public Service Delivery in Rural India
By Akshay Mangla
Permanent Black
Pages: 440
Price: Rs.795

Akshay Mangla first noticed something odd about public service delivery in primary education as a UNICEF intern in the carpet-making districts of Uttar Pradesh: there were some children who were neither at work nor in school. This detail from Mangla’s book transported me back to the early 1990s when, as a young trainee civil servant, I visited the same region. Our group stayed in a small village, sleeping in a government school. A little girl from a tea shop across the road brought us tea every morning, lightly patting us awake: “Didi! Didi! Utho! Chai!” Her name was Shakuntala. The bright-eyed little girl followed us everywhere as we mapped the village and tried to understand its realities. She wanted to come with us when we were ready to leave. When we left the village, the question uppermost in my mind was, Why was Shakuntala invisible to policy?

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According to Mangla, a large part of the answer lies in the unstated bureaucratic norms that govern how policies are interpreted and implemented on the ground. On the cover of Making Bureaucracy Work is the picture of a young boy sitting on a ledge, reading his schoolbook. Behind him, on the whitewashed wall, is a statement in Hindi: “Every child has the right to education.” This is known as “wall painting” and is used in “Information, Education, Communication” (IEC) efforts carried out by street-level bureaucrats across the country. Nevertheless, these words will remain a statement of intent unless translated into impact on the ground. How do bureaucrats implement this statement of intent? How can they get Shakuntala to go to school and deliver her right to education? This is the subject of Mangla’s fascinating book.

Education is a sector where considerable funding coming in from international agencies has led to a plethora of quick fixes in the name of what is loosely called “evidence”. Everyone who has ever attended school has an opinion about how to improve education.

This volume is different. Through a rich, multilevel comparative analysis involving over two-and-a-half years of fieldwork combining ethnographic research, hundreds of interviews, and participant observation, Mangla shows that bureaucrats can indeed influence outcomes depending on how they interpret and implement policies.

Through a detailed and textured narrative based on extensive empirical work, Mangla compares the ways in which four north Indian States have delivered primary education to rural children. How do street-level bureaucrats deliver primary education services to the least advantaged communities? Why are some States more effective in some areas than others? What makes the bureaucracy work, especially for the least advantaged? What does this mean for developing countries seeking to incentivise their bureaucracy to perform more effectively towards inclusive development?

In Mangla’s analysis, bureaucrats tend to work in what he describes as either “legalistic” or “deliberative” ways, depending on whether they prioritise strict regulatory adherence and compliance to rules, or whether they are more flexible with respect to context and in response to the needs of local communities. The legalistic, rule-based approach prioritises easily quantifiable, less complex tasks like increasing enrolment and infrastructure. The more deliberative approach, which is also a more problem-solving and contextually adaptive one, is informed by greater participation and interaction with the community. This leads to better implementation of complex tasks and improved processes. It is thus more impactful, leading to better delivery of public services. Importantly, even where institutions are not strong, it is possible for bureaucrats to find ways to perform and bring impact, rather than remain passive, subservient, captured, or corrupt.

“Effective bureaucrats seek out and hear diverse voices, ranging from elected leaders to civil society organisations and activists working with local communities.”

Mangla provides numerous insightful examples. Here is an education official in Himachal Pradesh speaking about how they were able to reach children from the nomadic Gujjar community. A caravan of volunteer teachers joined the Gujjar nomads as they migrated from Shimla to the plains of Saharanpur, helping the children with support classes. Within a few years, the first cohort of Gujjar children had completed primary schooling. “We had to uphold the dhancha [policy structure], but sometimes we let go of it. This way, the community felt it was apna [our] school.”

How do education officials know when to uphold the dhancha and when to let go, to reach the elusive goal of community ownership? How are these informal bureaucratic norms constructed? These questions are the subject of Mangla’s research.

Solving problems collectively

Harking back to Amartya Sen’s view of citizens as not just passive recipients of welfare services but as agents who participate actively with a voice, and Elinor Ostrom’s description of “co-production” between the state and non-state actors, Mangla points out that legalistic bureaucratic systems tend to be more closed to citizen interactions, with grievance redress happening only through formal channels that are too opaque and cumbersome for marginalised groups to navigate. However, in contexts where bureaucratic systems prioritise cooperation in achieving policy goals, norms encourage deliberation. Thus, such bureaucrats learn to seek out marginalised groups, listen to feedback, and deliberate together in order to solve problems collectively.

Beyond factors such as the stage of economic growth, geographical variation, the nature of institutions, and colonial administrative legacies, Mangla suggests that when bureaucratic norms influence the collective understanding and behaviour of officials while interpreting policy, this stimulates societal feedback. Ordinary everyday interactions between front-line officials and citizens are shaped into valuable field inputs that, when discussed with senior policymaking officers, add nuance and context to decision-making. Thus, States with the same institutional framework and similar demographic characteristics but different bureaucratic norms can perform differently.

Mangla shows how effective bureaucrats seek out and hear diverse voices, ranging from elected leaders to civil society organisations and activists working with local communities. “Elected leaders can be very effective in connecting us to people on the ground. Some might see that as interference, but what is ‘interference’? It is just a word,” says a health official in Himachal Pradesh. A volunteer of the Himachal Gyan Vigyan Samiti, which provides a channel of access to the voices and feelings of people, shares a community response: “That ‘I may be illiterate, but my child does not have to be’ was a sentiment that parents would often express to us.” A retired headmaster adds a blunt critique of an examination-oriented education system: “The exam system is unfriendly to the rural child, who has to study but also helps out with farming and domestic chores. The system sets the child up to fail.”

“Why is this book important? Because it shows how the voices of marginalised citizens can reach the state.”

Not least of all, a woman member of a Mother Teacher Association (MTA) in Himachal Pradesh speaks about the transformation achieved by the MTA meetings: “The men in our village are always saying to us, ‘You are all illiterate. What is the purpose of your group?’ And we too have asked ourselves that sometimes. But when the teachers started to arrive in school on time, we didn’t have to explain ourselves any more. So what if we are not educated? Our voice also reaches the state.”

Why is this book important? Because it shows how the voices of marginalised citizens can reach the state. Education is important because it is linked to social mobility. It can be an equaliser. It can fight inequality and prepare children for active and informed citizenship in a democracy. The primary education system already faces multiple challenges: teacher absences for administrative reasons; students’ absences due to domestic compulsions; vertically managed systems; disempowered teachers; the need for curriculum reform; the need for additional rich reading material for children; and local communities kept at a distance. Yet even with all these challenges, some States have managed to perform better than others.

Mangla’s book is a reminder of how much of social welfare service delivery is effective because of tireless communication by front-line workers and street-level bureaucrats. I remember how, during the rollout of a maternal nutrition programme, anganwadi workers persuaded some pregnant women who hesitated to participate, by using the logic of women’s Hb (haemoglobin) reports. They also follow up on water connections and sometimes convince gram panchayats to build a toilet or even shift an anganwadi to a larger space.

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I remember a discussion during a large State-level training programme on maternity benefits for pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers. One anganwadi supervisor raised her hand, used the microphone, and asked how rape survivors and sex workers could be helped to get the requisite documentation to apply for maternity benefits. The very fact that she asked this question in a State-wide training programme showed that discussions on implementation had transcended the old prejudices. We could collectively recognise that vulnerable people might be excluded unless specific plans are made in advance for ways to include them.

I also remember how, during the COVID pandemic, some primary school teachers, supported by bureaucrats in education, made physical visits to villages to run vataara shale, small open-air learning centres, to help children stay connected to learning. When bureaucrats can enable community participation and local ownership, it is possible to bring about positive change. 

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS. 

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