Wednesday, 28 April 2010

So Where's the Debate?

The Budget Session of Parliament has been on from February 22nd and will continue till May 7th , but with a little over a week left of the session, it begs the question – where has been the debate? Rather – what has Parliament been debating ?

Nearly every day these last few weeks, we hear about adjournments to Parliament due to disruptions by the opposition – from IPLgate to MP’s demanding suspension of Question Hour over the phone tapping issue. But while Parliament has been busy creating a ruckus over Shashi Tharoor, IPL, and the phone tapping scandal – some of the bigger questions affecting millions of people have remained unasked. Have we forgotten what the main functions of Parliament are?

In a recent article, MR Madhavan of PRS legislative research had pointed out that "Parliament’s main functions are legislative, oversight-related and representative; its mandate does not primarily include investigative work”. Parliament is an important forum where critical public debate can incur and elected representatives get an opportunity to ask the hard questions on behalf of the people they are accountable to and in turn get asked questions for which they in turn are accountable.

Yet a look at last year’s Budget Session gives a clear idea of the lack of adequate debate on the social sector - issues that affect millions of Indians on a day to day basis. Of the nearly 5400 questions asked during the session last year, only 5 percent of them were asked to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 4 percent to the Ministry of Human Resource Development and a meager 2 percent to the Ministry of Rural Development. This is despite the fact that the government spent Rs 3,98,828 crores in 2008-09 on the social sector according to the revised estimates by the Economic Survey.

Even in terms of the type of questions asked some of the big issues remain unaddressed.

For example, while elementary education constitutes over 50 percent of total allocations for education, most of the questions last year pertained to higher and university education. Moreover, questions continue to be concentrated on access and coverage issues – enrolments, construction of new building etc, with quality education receiving a lesser priority. This is despite the fact that the ASER report released earlier this year had found that while 96% of children in rural India in the age group of 6-14 years are now enrolled in school, the quality of education is still quite poor. However, in the entire budget session last year, there were only 15 instances where questions related to teachers were asked – with 8 of those relating to recruitment and only 3 relating to quality including teacher trainings.

Similarly, while rural development particularly NREGA ( now MGNREGA) has been receiving a huge push in terms of money allocations – it received Rs. 36,750 crores in 2008-09 – up from Rs. 14,220 in 2007-08 – there were only 39 instances of questions relating to it.

In the backdrop of rising food prices and huge problems in effective targeting of ration cards ( from July 2000 till December 2009 – 53 lakh fake ration cards in West Bengal, 10 lakh in Andhra Pradesh and 7 lakh in Gujarat have been discovered and destroyed and there probably exists many that are yet to be discovered)- even the issue of Public Distribution System and Food Security got only 31 questions. Rural drinking water and sanitation, another major problem – received 16 questions. With numerous disruptions during the Session this year, this record may be worse.

As the Budget Session enters its last week let’s try and remember what the main functions of the Parliament are and leave the investigative work to the already existing bodies who have the required skills and expertise such as the CBI, CID’s, Enforcement Directorates etc, and start asking some of these questions.

Avani Kapur is Researcher and Coordinator, PAISA Project at the Accountability Initiative

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

From the right to education to the right to food

Yamini Aiyar

From the right to education to the right to food, solving our development problems by clothing India’s citizens with new rights seems to be the flavor of our times. What should we make of this rise of rights? Skeptics have argued (and with some conviction) that this expansion of rights serves merely to raise expectations of delivery from a state that has proved conclusively that its greatest characteristic is its inefficiency. And so these new rights amount to nothing but political rhetoric. In a recent article on the subject the Economist suggests just this: ‘Perhaps its only indisputable achievement is political - as potential vote-winners, rights-based schemes are often attractive to politicians, no matter how effective they are’. And perhaps because of their political salience, another set of criticisms is that they serve as a diversion from the real challenge of creating an accountable and responsive state. While it could be argued that creating rights might in fact do just this, in reality – in a system where grievance redressal mechanisms are barely functional and the courts are no different to other arms of the Indian state (and should judges really be making decisions on areas where they have no competency?) – these new rights can never be made justiciable and thus have little credibility. (See these two links on the subject:

So do we dismiss this expansion of rights as nothing but new labels on old bottles that will dilute their own credibility, as mere political rhetoric that will divert from the real challenge at hand? I think not. To understand the potential of these new rights, it is important to think of them in the context of the power dynamics that shape state-citizen relationships in India. It is now a commonplace observation that in much of India citizen- state relationships exist more in the realm of patronage - the paternalistic, mai-baap sarkar that distributes state largess – than in the realm of rights and responsibilities. In this sense Indian democracy has fallen short of its ideal –honoring the standing of citizens and free and equal persons. The invocation of the language of rights in citizen’s everyday dealings with the state offers the opportunity to re –frame modes of citizen engagement from that of being passive recipients to becoming active agents that ‘demand’ services as their right. And this is critical to accountability. In a panel discussion we organized a few months ago, Nikhil Dey made the interesting point that ‘accountability from, the citizen’s point of view, is inextricably tied to basic entitlements. Who can I hold accountable if I don’t have an entitlement?’

Consider the movement for the right to information – arguably the first (and perhaps most successful) effort in India to expand the notion of fundamental rights to the domain of social and economic rights. The movement pushed the frontiers of the notion of access to information to offer a radical interpretation of access to information as a ‘right’ that is fundamental to citizen’s right to participate in government and hold it accountable. This interpretation was premised on the notion that the provision of a ‘right’ fundamentally alters power asymmetries between citizens and the state by giving citizens an entitlement which they have a ‘right’ to demand. Two of Accountability Initiative’s researchers have recently completed a study of the effects of a citizen’s organization in Delhi – the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) – that has been working with slum dwellers (mostly women) to invoke the right to information as a means to access basic services – ration cards, widow’s pensions from the state. SNS has also been running information campaigns to build resident capacity to engage with the formal government system. A language of rights and entitlements is integral to SNS’s information campaigns. The study finds that making citizens aware of their rights and entitlements and pushing them to invoke these rights to access services has had an empowering influence on slum dwellers who are have increasingly more confidence in making demands directly to officials and politicians. In fact the study finds that awareness of rights and entitlements and the invocation of these rights in dealings with officials– particularly the right to information has had considerable success in enabling citizens to access basic services.

But in all of this one needs to acknowledge that the aspirations of rights approaches will only be met if one addresses the hard challenge of ensuring that entitlements are realized. We need to think long and hard about creating effective grievance redressal; about undertaking much needed administrative reforms and at the very minimum about ensuring that people are made adequately aware of their rights and what this means for accessing services from the state. The rhetoric of rights adopted by the current political dispensation offers an opportunity to do this. But this will require concerted civil society action. Can civil society rise to the challenge? And will civil society pressure be enough?

In sum, rights approaches could be the starting point of re-articulation of citizen state relationships – one that could fundamentally alter the nature of the Indian state. Or they could end up proving critics right and end up as yet another moment in Indian democracy that never took off.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director, Accountability Initiative.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Accountability News Update - 16 April 2010

A fortnightly round up of accountability news and views from around the world.

UK: Web-inventor calls for government data transparency
The inventor of the World Wide Web talks about the need for countries to open up and make public data accessible to all citizens.

Pakistan: Access to information now a fundamental right
The Right to Information is now a fundamental right in Pakistan following the insertion of Article 19A in the Constitution via the 18th Amendment Bill. Under article 19A, “Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restriction imposed by the law.”

US: Calls for ‘YouTube’ of Government data
US Technology Chief, Vivek Kundra has encouraged technology developers to create a ‘YouTube’ of government data in the US. The tool would enable people to “slice and dice” data to create mashups and web applications to reveal new patterns and carry out analysis.

UK: New Anti-bribery legislation comes into force
A new Bribery law in the UK heralds a clampdown on large UK businesses making payments to officials overseas to facilitate business, say experts. The new act has introduced an offence of corporate failure to prevent bribery. It is the first time such a law has existed in the UK. It also requires companies to have "adequate processes" in place to prevent such offences.

Canada: Delays leave access to information rights 'totally obliterated'
A recent report on the performance of Canada’s Access to Information Act flags chronic delays as a serious impediment to citizens trying to access information. The report, entitled Out of Time, documents the extent of delays and identifies factors contributing to them, based on an assessment of how 24 federal institutions responded to access to information requests in 2008-2009. These institutions account for 88 percent of the requests Canadians submitted that year.

Brazil: Congress passes Right to Information Bill
The Lower House of the Brazilian Congress has approved a draft bill on the Right to Information. The RTI Bill now awaits approval by the Senate and if passed will give effect to the right to information enshrined in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

What gets measured gets done - but about outcomes?

Sapna Desai

Nirvikar Singh’s recent piece on Janani Suraksha Yojna (JSY) (see link) is a welcome call to address the ‘social determinants’ of health. The causes of the causes, so to speak, of illness and mortality, like education, environment and income are indeed key indicators of women’s health status and survival.

Specifically regarding JSY, however, most evaluations miss one critical issue: the quality of services. While JSY promotes institutional delivery for a woman through a financial incentive, there is no guarantee that she receives the proper services that she deserves. In fact, most JSY-used facilities are overcrowded, often with more than one woman sharing a bed.
Accountability mechanisms rightly focus on the question of inputs - are funds being disbursed – but what measure of the recipient’s care? The true measure of JSY’s success will be to see if more women are actively seeking care before, during and after delivery from a properly equipped institution. And more critically, do they receive quality care?

If we are to look at the larger issue of gendercide and ‘saving India’s women’, we must look much further than institutional delivery. The deeper accountability issue is if women can access basic health services, well before pregnancy. For example, I find that gynecological infection is the most common health complaint amongst SEWA’s members across 9 states of India. Yet if they try, women cannot access basic treatment at the primary or block level in most parts of rural India. Gynecologists are not posted, pap tests are not available, and laboratory diagnosis for reproductive tract infections is unheard of – leaving women with expensive private care or none at all. Even she is undernourished, hemoglobin testing, food supplements and iron pills are limited to pregnant women.

Thus by the time a pregnant woman interacts with the public health system under JSY, the underlying causes of maternal mortality have long taken root. After her 24 hour delivery stint at the hospital, she is likely to remain far from institutions, at least until the next delivery.

To truly improve women and mother’s health, primary women’s health services – health information, nutritional support and gynecological care to start – must be available at the local level. In addition to the ASHA worker, we have a legion of dais highly skilled at providing women with doorstep health services. Though a pregnant woman may travel long distances for a delivery with a financial incentive, she certainly cannot sacrifice a day’s earnings for primary care. Locally available health care will promote her overall health status, which of course also equips her for a safer delivery at an institution if she chooses. And when she does seek that care under JSY, she must be entitled to quality.

Sapna Desai is Health Coordinator for the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Bharat, a national federation of women workers across 9 states.

Performance Management and Government?

Mandakini Devasher Surie

Performance management and government – two words you don’t often hear together and when you do – you’re quite likely to roll your eyes and move on to the next headline. That’s what I used to do until I attended a SAARC workshop on “Government Performance Management” which changed my mind. The two-day workshop in New Delhi from 30-31 March 2010, brought together delegates from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan to discuss what government’s can do to improve their performance. Quite surprisingly the Indian government is doing a whole lot.

Under a directive from the Prime Minister’s Office, departments with uncharacteristic speed and efficiency have been implementing a new “Performance Monitoring and Evaluation System” (PMES) since 2009. At the heart of the PMES is a relatively simple concept – “what gets measured, gets managed”. It marks a shift away from traditional practices of measuring expenditures as outcomes to a more rigorous system of evaluating the performance of government departments. Steered by the Cabinet Secretariat’s Performance Management Division, the PMES is designed to help government departments define, measure and monitor their progress against defined targets and indicators.

How will it work?
At the beginning of each year (1 April), government departments have to develop a Results Framework Document (RFD) which is essentially a performance agreement signed between a Minister and the Secretary of a particular department. In the RFD, departments have to address three basic questions: i) what are the main objectives of the department for the year? ii) what actions are necessary to achieve these objectives and finally iii) what are the success indicators necessary to evaluate these actions. The matrix that results from this exercise is locked into an online MIS system which is then tracked through the year. The department’s progress against these set targets is first reviewed after 6 months and finally evaluated at the end of the year (31 March). Till date, 62 line ministries have signed up to the RFD and their RFDs can already be accessed online. Under discussion is also a controversial proposal to link 40% of a Secretary’s salary to the department’s performance. If implemented this would introduce a system of performance based pay never before seen in the history of Indian administration.

Potential roadblocks?
While all of this looks fantastic on paper, you have to wonder how it will work in practice given the scale and complexity of India’s governance and service delivery system. Take the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) for example; it is one of the largest ministries in the government with a budget of Rs 66137.86 crore for the year 2010-11. The Department of Rural Development – one of three departments within the Ministry - handles a range of social sector programmes including the NREGA, SGSY, PMGSY, IAY, NSAP and PURA. The scale of their interventions is tremendous: 28 states, 619 districts, 6484 blocks, 2.5 lakh panchayats, 15 lakh rural habitations and 542.90 lakh BPL households (data from MoRD). How do you begin to map all of this into a results based performance management system?

When you factor in the many centrally sponsored schemes and their complex funding and implementation structures – things get even more complicated. Here there are practical issues of coordination between different layers of bureaucracy, data and information gaps, limited implementation capacity, questions about the quality of services and even the quality of reporting. Over and above these implementation issues, there are broader questions about how the PMES will fit in with existing reporting and monitoring mechanisms which now include an Independent Evaluation Office and the Prime Ministers’ Delivery Monitoring Unit. Without sustained political will and proper incentives to see it through there is a real danger that the PMES will become just one amongst many well-intentioned but poorly implemented monitoring mechanisms – the ill-fated outcomes budget comes to mind.

Without a doubt, the government has its work cut out. But we have reasons to be optimistic. There is clearly a lot of political will and energy backing the PMES and its evident the Cabinet Secretariat means business. This is definitely one trend worth watching!

Mandakini Devasher Surie is a Research Associate with the Accountability Initiative.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

RTE sparks a centre-state row: We want your views!

India made international headlines last week with the official enactment of Right to Education Act (RTE) guaranteeing the right to free and compulsory education to every child between the age group of 4 and 16 years. But barely a week after it was passed by Parliament, the RTE has been mired in an intense debate over centre-state relations. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati has led criticisms of the RTE, arguing that the new law puts an immense implementation and fiscal burden on already cash strapped states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. A number of states including West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Punjab have voiced similar concerns about how they will fund the RTE.

The current exchange of barbs and criticisms across party lines highlights an important question: in an increased era of centralization, where policies are designed by the centre but implemented by states – where do states find the resources to fund and implement such massive programs? And who is ultimately accountable for how these programs are rolled out on the ground? Who is answerable for how monies were spent, progress made and targets achieved? These questions are not restricted to the RTE but apply to the broader package of social reforms including the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, National Rural Health Mission, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission introduced by the government in the last few years.

What do you think? Write in and share your views with us.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Who Cares About Outcomes?

Yamini Aiyar

I had almost forgotten, till I saw a copy at a friend’s office yesterday, that every year in Parliament’s budget session, apart from presenting the annual budget, the Government of India tables an outcomes budget where every ministry reports on its outcomes. Remiss as I was in forgetting, I can’t be blamed, entirely. The outcomes budget was launched amidst much talk of reform in 2005 by then finance minister P Chidambaram. In a promising budget speech, he said ‘I must caution that outlays do not necessarily result in outcomes’. ‘The people of this country,’ he went on to add, ‘are concerned with outcomes’. And to his credit he launched the outcomes budget. In its short five year existence, the budget has been nothing but a damp squib. So valued is the outcomes budget that it never makes even the inside pages of newspapers and if you want to look for them on line – well best of luck to you.

What went wrong? Well, like many things in government, the idea is a good one but its implementation nothing short of poor. There are two critical elements to a successful ‘outcomes budget’. First, it requires the identification of clear, concise and quantifiable outcome indicators. These indicators need to be tangible and realistic. Here the outcomes budget falls short. Indicators are vague – the health ministry describes ‘funding of institutions’ and ‘widening of surveillance mechanisms’ as some of its key outcomes- making measurement impossible and irrelevant.

Second, for an ‘outcomes budget’ to achieve results it must be accompanied by increased information on performance against these indicators. The Finance Minister emphasized this at the launch of the outcomes budget, by pointing out that the objective of the budget is to put critical data on expected outcomes in to the public domain and allow for public scrutiny. On this count too, the outcomes budget has fallen far short of expectations. The budget itself was launched with much media fanfare but over the years it has simply disappeared from the public radar. There is no evidence of any proactive effort by government agencies to generate and disseminate information on progress.

In today’s Mint, Sanjiv Misra, former member of the 13th Finance Commission made some interesting observations about the failure of the outcomes budget. He points out that for reforms like the Outcomes Budget to be successful it requires the “establishment of countrywide performance benchmarks and costing norms for the public goods and services supplied; development of measurable performance indicators for the objectives set out; development of performance monitoring systems to regularly collect data on the actual results achieved; independent third-party evaluation of major programmes; and use of performance contracts to enforce accountability of key actors.” He so argues for the need to link performance on outcomes budgeting with pay.

The interesting thing about India today is that we have all these design instruments in place and we speak the right ‘speak’. Everyone in Government from the highest to the lowest agree that outcomes matter. Everyone in Government from the highest to the lowest agree that these need to be monitored and that he failure to do just this is the cause of our persistent poor performance on human development. Everyone in Government from the highest to the lowest has some interesting ideas on how to address this problem. As we speak the cabinet secretariat is running a seminar on performance oriented monitoring in the civil services. In fact the performance management wing of the cabinet secretariat has signed a significant number of contracts with Government of India departments to performance criterion and goals and there are some whispers about introducing pay for performance measures. At the same time the planning commission seems to be moving towards setting up the Independent Evaluation Office and a few months ago, PMO set up a delivery monitoring unit. There is also much talk of using technology through the UID and other instruments to develop a transparent expenditure information network that will allow for transparency and regular tracking of government funds. All of which have the potential to address the problems reforms like the outcomes budget faces. But for these instruments to take effect, we need political will – and that as we all know is sadly missing. What we need now is not more instruments but a better understanding of how to circumvent this lack of political will and push for change.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director, Accountability Initiative.