The pursuit of “good governance” has become ubiquitous in Indian politics. Across party lines, in the run-up to every election, voters are offered different visions of better public administration and improved state services. But each vision has a common theme: disciplining and tightening control over India’s errant lower-level bureaucrats. While the specific solutions can vary, the broader discussion traverses two dominant views. First, a techno-optimistic approach, which encourages the use of technology as a means to discipline bureaucrats by making their actions more transparent. The Narendra Modi government’s attempts to “maximise governance” through the biometric tracking of bureaucrats’ attendance, and its focus on “process re-engineering” — as announced on the first annual “Good Governance Day” last Christmas — belong to this family of reforms. State governments have taken similar steps in recent years: from installing CCTVs in administrative offices to using GPRS phones to track the whereabouts of frontline officers. The second school of thought emphasises legal and civic action to instil discipline and responsiveness in the bureaucracy.
The United Progressive Alliance government’s enshrinement of the rights to education, information and food, and work, resonate with this project of citizen empowerment. The Aam Aadmi Party’s anti-corruption campaigns propose a marriage of public activism and technological reforms, encouraging citizens to expose deviant administrators using social media. Disciplinary reform measures can boost the bureaucracy’s performance, but not always in the most meaningful ways. Take the case of education. In the last 15 years, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the Right to Education Act have codified everything from student-teacher ratios to the numbers of classrooms and toilets per school. Monitoring systems track administrators to ensure the rules are followed. This has all created significant progress: school enrollment is near universal, and almost every rural settlement now has a government school building. However, none of this has ensured that students receive an education.
As the Annual Status of Education Reports remind us, even as more students enter the elementary education system, levels of learning remain low. In 2006, 53 per cent of children in the fifth standard could read, though only at a second-standard text-level. By 2014 even this figure had dropped, to 48 per cent. Improved learning requires more than a top-down focus on infrastructure and bureaucratic discipline. But rarely have reforms taken into account the need to change the mindsets of officers on the front lines of government. To understand why discipline alone cannot effect change, between 2012 and 2013 our team at the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, surveyed frontline government officers who work at the first points of contact between citizens, state bureaucracies and school administrations. For two months, we chronicled the typical working days of 16 officers at 12 block resource centres in Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. These included cluster resource centre coordinators — who are responsible for providing academic support to clusters of ten to 15 schools each — and block education officers, or BEOs — who are in charge of the day-to-day administration for anywhere between 75 and 200 schools.
Broadly, a BEO’s responsibilities include monitoring compliance with rules and orders, managing human resources, engaging communities, and assessing the needs of schools and the learning challenges faced by students. In contrast to the sleepy reputation of low-level government offices, we found block offices to be places of frenzied activity, crowded with teachers, headmasters, parents and village leaders. We discovered that BEOs’ daily routines are rarely planned, and tend to be dictated by phone calls from district headquarters informing them of new orders and tasks to carry out. For example, during our observation, the Bihar BEOs were busy reporting on the status of district orders to organise camps for the distribution of uniforms and scholarships. In Andhra Pradesh, they were reporting on the implementation of orders for teacher recruitment. In all the states, most days involved a lot of paperwork: preparing reports based on school visits, and discussing newly requested reports with district authorities. The zeal to report to higher authorities often came at the expense of responding to the needs of the schools. For instance, the BEO’s job involves constituting school management committees, through which parental feedback can be solicited and local needs understood. Most BEOs told our team that these committees were deemed functional so as long as they could report a monthly meeting to their seniors. Officers ensured these monthly meetings were held and used them to communicate new guidelines from the state, but found little time for meaningful interaction to address classroom dynamics, student learning and parental involvement.
Moreover, in the rush to meet reporting deadlines issued by district administrations, headmasters and members of the general public visiting the offices were commonly ignored or asked to wait. And when BEOs or their staff did go out into the field to gather data, they prioritised the hasty collection of information required by higher-ups — on attendance, the status of infrastructure, or the delivery of midday meals — over spending time in classrooms and understanding students’ needs. Officials often said they couldn’t prioritise students because they had to finish and forward monitoring reports. As one respondent in Bihar said, “As long as you keep sending data and as many forms as possible, you are a good worker here.” Block-level staff in Andhra Pradesh agreed. “Our job is focused on filing forms well,” one officer said, “we honestly don’t know what happens after we collect this information.” And when there are no immediate district or higher-government orders to act upon, as one cluster resource coordinator said, officers’ work consisted of “complete rest in comfortable conditions.”
In media and policy debates, it is common to assume that administrators treat citizens callously due to arrogance and an inflated sense of power. Our research led us to conclude that such callousness is as much a response to officers’ sense of powerlessness within the administrative hierarchy. The BEOs we interviewed expressed reluctance to deal with the public not only due to a paucity of time, but also a lack of authority to offer clear assurances or responses in the face of grievances. In Bihar, our team encountered a headmaster who had been waiting for news on the status of teacher appointments in his school for over six months. The block officer could only tell the headmaster that he had forwarded the request for information to the district level, and had to wait for a response. Another BEO in Bihar mentioned a widespread concern among headmasters regarding a lack of space in schools, and described frequent requests for the construction of more classrooms. “The headmaster comes here and I have no answer on what has happened to their request or problem. I have to send them to the district office or ask them to wait till I hear anything. I feel bad. I have no power to give them anything, but I don’t know what has happened to their case either.” By design, the block education officer is a key node in the education hierarchy. Yet several BEOs described themselves as “post officers” and “reporting machines,” with no authority to take decisions. “What can I do?” an officer in Bihar’s Nalanda district said, “I am just a BEO.” Another officer said he had his hands so full with scheduling and handling payments for teacher training that he couldn’t possibly worry about the content of the training sessions as well: “Even if I provided suggestions, who would take us messengers seriously?”
Block officers are rarely rewarded for how well they deliberate with schools and parents, but risk heavy reprimands for sluggish responses to requests from higher-level officials. Sceptics would argue that the so-called “post- office syndrome” is just another excuse to shirk responsibility. But rather than dismiss the professed sense of powerlessness, state and central governments must recognise that improving their capacity to govern cannot bypass the question of how to change this mindset. Recent experiments, which attempt to better motivate and equip frontline workers can show the way. For example, in Rajasthan, researchers from MIT’s Poverty Action Lab worked with local police to provide new forms of on-the-job training for police officers. The result: significant improvements in public perceptions of police performance. Enforcing discipline through technology, rights and rules can ensure that routine tasks are done in a fair and efficient fashion. Discipline alone can’t teach administrators tasked with public dealing, such as BEOs, to deliberate better; but it can further entrench a very limited notion of responsibility, oriented entirely towards responding to higher authorities rather than to citizens. Changing attitudes will require a transformation in how administrators see both themselves and the citizens they are meant to serve. As much as reforms should monitor and penalise corruption and callousness, they must also tackle the mindsets and problems of morale that fuel them.
This is an extract reprinted with permission from The Caravan, March 2015 © Delhi Press. www.caravanmagazine.in. For full report, log on to www.caravanmagazine.in/perspectives/post-office-state-education-bureaucratic