The rural development ministry recently proposed “independent, real-time evaluation” of the government’s flagship social welfare and development programmes, a suggestion that deserves attention not just for its pros, but also for its cons. It is true that given the explosive growth in social sector spending, effective monitoring and evaluation are ever more important. The constant hum of charges that extra money is being misspent or stolen serves to politically discredit these social sector schemes, and they need proper investigation. Yet, the ministry’s proposed mechanism looks less like a method for genuine, independent investigation than a way to increase, even further, government employment opportunities for programme evaluation experts. The ministry has suggested a “concurrent evaluation network”, to be controlled by another new body, the “independent evaluation office”, or IEO.
Naming a body “independent” does not, however, make it so. Although the IEO is supposed to be registered as a society, it will function under the rural development ministry. It is difficult to imagine that any such arrangement will be independent to any noticeable degree; it will end up being, in all probability, an appendage of the ministry itself. Meanwhile, the twin premises on which the ministry has built up its case for an instantaneous scrutiny appear to have problems too. The argument is that concurrent evaluation is more useful than post-mortems, since it helps policy makers intervene on a real-time basis. Such monitoring was, in fact, an integral part of most development programmes in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was given up because it was observed to be impractical as development work scaled up in size. In addition, the reports ongoing reviews generated seem to wind up doing little, since they did not have the sort of content that could lead to worthwhile remedial action.
Even today, there is no dearth of reviews and reviewers of government schemes. The ministries concerned conduct periodical internal evaluations. The Plan co-ordination division of the Planning Commission examines the outcome of most programmes. The fiscal accounts are scrutinised annually by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for Parliament. And the Prime Minister’s Office keeps tabs on some selected flagship programmes to assess their impact. In addition, some programmes are open to social audits — which seem to have worked well in some cases and in some states. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, social audits identified several irregularities, especially in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Part of the misspent money was recovered, even. That said, these monitoring mechanisms, individually and collectively, have largely failed to prevent corruption and improve targeting. The rural development ministry’s proposal is an example of compounding the problem, by creating another body capable of interfering in schemes — but incapable of actually evaluating them independently. What is needed is a structure that provides for unbiased evaluation, both quantitative and qualitative, and can come up with result-oriented suggestions to improve outcomes. New bodies controlled by ministries will expand bureaucratic and policy empires, but do little for government effectiveness.