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By: Vijayalakshmi Mohan Posted: Category: Blog

Government partnership – done right

What are some risks that the government seemingly overlooks while collaborating with a non-state partner? As non-state actors, what can we do to quell apprehensions and make the engagement purposeful and beneficial to society?

A typical conversation that I have in any social gathering goes like this:

Someone: “What do you do for a living?”
Me: “I work with the school education department”.
Someone: “So, you’re a government employee?”,
Me: “No, I work for a non-profit that strengthens public education systems. We support the government in areas like curricular reforms, teacher training, conceiving technology solutions…”
Someone: “But if you do what the government does, what are the government employees doing?”

And that’s how the role of non-state actors is most commonly confused, contorted and misunderstood. As the recently published report1 by UNESCO says, ‘apart from building and running schools, non-state actors also provide supplementary services such as textbook publishing, content creation, teacher training, Mid-Day Meal (MDM) preparation, support for Information and Communications Technology (ICT), managerial inputs, and overall policy support, among other things’.

Along similar lines, an article2 by Ms Yamini Aiyar critically examines the increasing involvement of consultants working with the Union and State departments. While she states that “Crucially, consultation, engagement, innovation and dialogue in policymaking are an essential democratic act and, in a limited way, the “consultant” is part of this democratic process”, she also carefully looks at the “risks it poses to the goal of building State capacity and bringing evidence and innovation in policy.”

Both the report and the article raise some legitimate concerns about the ownership shown by the government in building a welfare state. Is the state being let off the hook by collaborating with consultants? Are we downplaying the importance of state capacity building by opting for quick fixes over deeper, more sustainable transformation? Is the larger goal of equity traded off for a unilateral focus on efficiency? This article aims to shed some light on practical strategies that can be opted to allay these concerns.

  1. Equity versus Efficiency
    Efficiency is producing quality work with optimal resource utilisation. It is a long-held belief in economic theory that efficiency comes at the cost of foregoing principles of socio-economic equity. The report states, ’While non-state participation, especially the engagement of the private sector, brings with it some resources, the culture of functioning that is focussed on efficiency and the achievement of outcomes, comes with a price. The price is equity.’

    Some economists have also held that efficiency is a means to an end, not the end unto itself. While focusing on socio-economic upliftment, efficiency cannot be an outcome or the end goal. Equity should be an outcome that a state strives to achieve. From policy formulation to project implementation and evaluation, a robust end-to-end project lifecycle should be enforced to promote efficiency in the government to realise the goal of equity. Non-state actors can contribute effectively towards improving the efficiency of service delivery. For instance, in a project currently run at Madhi Foundation, focusing on providing opportunities for higher secondary school students to enter institutes of academic eminence, we look both at process and engagement outcomes (Timely issuance of Govt. Order/Department. Circulars, Attendance of training etc.,) and impact outcomes (Number of students across various categories who successfully enrol into premier institutes) – keeping efficiency as a means to attain the larger social goal of equity while tracking success indicators for both.

  2. Augmentation of capacity
    The role of a consultant need not be seen as a ‘replacement’ to the department personnel. In a Conclave organised by Madhi Foundation, Ms Pooja Kulkarni IAS., the current MD & CEO of Industrial Guidance and Export Promotion Bureau (GUIDANCE), Tamil Nadu, stated, “Complementarity will come if the private partner’s project implementation can improve the government’s resource. The expectation is that nonprofits have the capacity to improve the capacity of government resources, not replace them.”

    As an organisation, Madhi Foundation strongly believes in augmenting the state’s capacity rather than supplementing it. Working with the state resource personnel to achieve a common goal through co-creation and co-design is hard but not impossible. Sharp roles and responsibilities with a clear vision of what the programme intends to achieve can make capacity augmentation a reality. For instance, when Madhi was a part of the curriculum revision process in 2017-19, we supported the resource group of the state to conduct reviews, track progress, and conceive ideas. The subject matter experts of the state shared ideas deeply rooted in the context of the teaching-learning realities of the system. We provided targeted tracking mechanisms and shared best practices from across the world. This experience was an eye-opening exercise for the organisation – it showed us how to leverage the state’s institutional knowledge while working on projects at scale. Being open to learning and adaptive also helped us build trust and credibility with various stakeholders.

  3. Power dynamics
    Where there are people, there is politics, and it is true in any social set-up, whether family or work. Age, experience, and qualification contribute to the hierarchical dynamics in a state’s machinery. The power struggle between department personnel and consultants is a known risk. As mentioned above, the department personnel have a wealth of institutional knowledge critical to envisioning any policy reform. Leveraging the strengths of each team member in the project, be it the state personnel or the consultants, will help achieve a common goal. Most importantly, rooting all conversations in empathy – be it the personal secretary of an officer or the officer will build trust that can also reap dividends in the long run.
  4. Accountability
    Ms Aiyar, in her article, also puts forth a two-pronged argument – one being ‘doing the job of the State lets the State off the hook’ and the second being that the private player and the government are each accountable to different parties.

    The state’s job is to formulate policies promoting public welfare. The consultant’s job is to support the state in maximising its capacity towards achieving that outcome. In a functional democracy, a state can never be left ‘off the hook’ because the government is answerable to its people.

    In cases where the government has hired a private player to provide services, they are expected to produce detailed work reports. They have personnel salaries linked to meeting certain success criteria defined by the department. Additionally, private or non-profit organisations also have a reputational stake in any government engagement that encourages them to work with diligence.

  5. Sunset clause
    What are non-state actors doing in their capacity to ensure the sustainability of their intervention? In a country like ours, where policy reforms are long-drawn and complex, adopting a sunset clause is yet to see the light of day. As a country, we have not reached a point where sunset clauses are effectively promulgated. Much little can be achieved by organisations which are minuscule in scale compared to governments to bring life to this clause.

    As a collective, over the course of their engagement, non-state actors should commit to ensuring that strengthening the state’s capacity is a priority area, if not immediately, atleast over the horizon.

  6. Understanding the context
    We’ve had an officer who jokingly remarked that consultants come with a cure for headaches when the ailment is stomach ache! Elaborate diagnostic tests and needs analyses will allow contextual interventions to evolve. The non-state actors should align their projects to the needs of the state and work towards targeting quality benchmarks set by the State and the Union.

    Government is a gargantuan machinery, and any private entity is a mole-hill in comparison. There is no doubt that the government can successfully roll out welfare schemes without private players – the RTE’s success in ensuring access to schools across most states, implementation of the mid-day meal scheme, and eradication of polio are stellar examples of the same. However, with social problems becoming complex and multifaceted in a world reeling in the aftermath of a global pandemic, the need of the hour is to ensure urgent redressal through sustained efforts by both parties. The onus on the state is to legitimise the role of consultants after carefully evaluating their service to work together for the larger good. Innovation, creativity, and efficiency should go hand in hand. It is the collective responsibility of society to hold the state accountable towards ensuring that the last mile citizen is centric to its development.


  2. Government by ‘Consultant’ can hollow out the State, December 2022

This article was written under the aegis of the Centre for Education Research in India (CERI). CERI, an initiative powered by Madhi Foundation, is a digital repository and think-tank catering to policymakers, practitioners, and academics in the education sector and the larger community, to catalyse reform in the education ecosystem in India.

Vijayalakshmi Mohan is the Co-Founder at Madhi Foundation and oversees the District Model Schools project along with other pilots and district transformation projects. An alumnus of Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, she has worked in the education sector for over 6 years, including 2 years as a government school teacher during her fellowship with Teach for India. She has worked extensively in training government school teachers and other administrative and academic officials in the system.