THE needs of the country and people are centred mainly on security issues (internal and external, food, water and power), social welfare programmes like health and education, housing, employment, improving income levels, infrastructure and so on. Governance is about maximising the welfare of people and meeting these needs. Every party prepares and peppers its election manifesto with promises of meeting these concerns for garnering the largest numbers of votes in its favour. Many of the promises in reality amount to only improving the delivery status of ongoing schemes and projects, shifting the emphasis in favour of a region or class of people, or providing more funds for a select set of projects. Several promises can’t be kept simply due to funding problems in the light of commitments already made by earlier administrations. They can’t be-nor should they be-scrapped unless they have proved to be unsustainable.
Government schemes do not undergo dramatic changes since it is idle to argue that the previous government was irresponsible or oblivious to the needs of the people. There could be cases where the expenditure, including physical work, is best written off or put on the backburner after careful consideration. Barring this last category, the new government would be ill-advised to abandon all the projects, programmes and work done earlier, which would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The attempt should be to maximise the benefits that may accrue and allow the project to continue to reach the appropriate point of closure. It would be prudent to make a rain check and give a push to projects that are awaiting last-mile connectivity. But, in some cases, it may be worthwhile to curtail the scope of work. Hence, for some time at least, the people and the government itself have to be patient before totally new schemes start coming to fruition. Besides, in practice, many of the promises remain just that. Parties, once in power, have other priorities, which go beyond manifestos. The members of the ruling party start making demands, which may not always be in line with the pronouncements made by the government. The problem gets more complex with coalitions forming the government, when keeping the numbers in the ruling party’s fold remains an overbearing priority.
Next is the question of implementation, which is the key to governance. There have been comments ad nauseam about the quality of our Five Year Plans being among the best, but lamenting weak implementation. This, in one’s opinion, is the cumulative outcome of decades of slackness leading to backlogs and ultimately snowballing into incomplete projects, cost and time overruns, a huge population remaining uncovered by social welfare programmes, unemployment growing exponentially and widespread discontent. The lack of probity in public dealings does have some connection with such a state of affairs.
Monitoring and evaluation
For quite some time, the governments were concerned with departments spending maximum amounts from their respective allocations, under the presumption that expenditure under various programmes would automatically give the necessary fillip and lead to the government fulfilling its obligations. Expenditure by the government must achieve the following, at the very least:
- Outcomes of the schemes are able to achieve the intended purpose, with minimum negative impact on any section and those so impacted get a compensatory package to alleviate their suffering. The money is spent prudently, getting maximum value or ‘bang for the buck’.
- Timelines are adhered to for programmes and all support services to ensure benefits reaching target groups at the earliest.
- Periodical review and evaluation done and course corrections made as necessary.
Funds are limited and there are competing demands from practically all sectors. It should be the endeavour of each department to ensure that it gets the maximum value out of the available funds. Earlier, attempts to introduce performance budgets and outcome budgets fell short in this regard. In 2009, the Performance Management Division was created in the Cabinet Secretariat and it devised the Programme Management and Evaluation System (PMES) and Result Framework Documentation (RFD) to plug this lacuna.
An independent body-an Ad hoc Task Force (ATF)-was constituted, comprising former senior bureaucrats, technocrats, members from academia such as IIMs and former senior-level officers from private and public sector. Long years of experience and knowledge pooled from the ATF helped departments look beyond their comfort zones and soft targets, with an eye on the cushion that would help them escape likely opprobrium in the event of achievements falling short.
During the years the scheme has been under implementation, there was distinct improvement in functioning wherever the departments followed the system with enthusiasm. One must hasten to add that to claim that the PMES was an unqualified success would amount to oversell. Some departments did so with lukewarm effort and, unfortunately, even resorted to subterfuge. As a result, it became difficult to assess their performance at the yearend. A fact stood out: greater ownership at political level and bureaucratic level would have made the programme more successful. With the present government’s determination to get things done in a time-bound manner-added to that the need to get ‘bang for the buck’, an independent mechanism, whose main objective would be nothing but to maximise the returns for the government’s investments-could only be an added facilitator to further the cause of governance.
WHAT applies to projects is also applicable to other systems that have been in place-after due evaluation, of course. Here again, abandoning them lock, stock and barrel may well be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Whatever the form, a system of arm’s-length target fixing, monitoring and evaluation would go a long way in maximising the value of money spent and fast-tracking the flow of benefits arising from programmes and schemes. No matter how efficient the machinery, a well-meaning friend, philosopher and guide will add value and present a true picture to an otherwise insular set-up. This is not to question the integrity of the bureaucracy, but truth is not a one-dimensional entity. The fear of adverse comments and lack of approbation would tempt the best among us to do some creative accounting. It may be worthwhile to quote Stephen Covey from his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where he says something to the effect that when trying to negotiate a treacherous path in a dense forest, it would be useful if someone would get atop a tall tree and ensure that the team is on the right path. If the leader remains sanguine in his belief that, when good progress is being made, why waste time looking at the path, the team would have reached somewhere, though not necessarily the destination, and may in fact be miles away and in the opposite direction too!
The writer is a 1965-batch former IAS officer of the Kerala cadre and former Secretary in Ministry of Water Resources