It is an oft-repeated lament that what government programmes claim in conception, they lack in implementation. In fact, implementation guidelines of many programmes generally exhibit great clarity on paper, in the mechanics of field-level execution. Actual implementation leaves much to be desired.
While there are several reasons for the inadequacies in implementation, a common underlying thread is ineffectual supervisory guidance and lack of constant monitoring. Unfortunately, while we search for solutions to implementation failure, limited attention has been paid to the critical role of supervisors. To the long list of deficits that plague our governance systems, there is none more important than our supervisory deficit.
Our bureaucracy can be broadly divided into two parts —one undertakes field-level execution and the other does its supervision. For example, while teachers carry out classroom instruction, headmasters and school inspectors guide and monitor the quality of this instruction. Within the supervisory bureaucracy itself, the bottom half directly supervises field-level execution, while the other half does more strategic supervision. Typically, the sub-district level officials belong to the former category while those at the district and above are in the latter.
The efficiency of field supervision is a major contributor to the successful execution of any policy and implementation plan. It is here that the deficit is most glaring. Inadequate supervision of village-level development work is arguably the most important reason why, in the words of a former prime minister, just 15 paise out of every rupee spent reaches the poor. Weak supervision of auxiliary nurse midwives by health supervisors and doctors weakens our primary health care system. The virtual absence of supervision of ration shop dealers by tahsildars has been the bane of our public distribution system.
Most often, debates on improving the quality of supervision go astray by focusing on the lack of capacity and inadequate strength of the supervisory bureaucracy. Admittedly, supervisors, at all levels, are over-burdened with responsibilities, in both their functional and geographical spans. After all, scarce resources and stretched responsibilities characterize any public system in a large country like India.
Moreover, this overlooks critical factors. Foremost among these being that field-level supervisors, cutting across departments and throughout the country, function primarily as data collection agents. They make inspections to collect data and hold meetings to consolidate them. And all this data then flow upward, most often meaninglessly, to satisfy routine supervisory and monitoring requirements.
In the scramble to send reports before deadlines, they lose sight of their primary responsibility of ensuring quality in the delivery of the service. It is rare to find field-level supervisors spending more than a small portion of their time on the quality of implementation
Another critical area is the lack of role clarity among the multiple levels of supervisory officials. It is commonplace to find duplication and lack of complementarity in work between supervisors at different levels.
There are no magic-bullet solutions to these problems. However, there are certain fundamental principles that should underpin any effort to bridge the supervisory deficit. One, supervisors should move away from being mere data collectors and use that data to support decision making. Data collection should preferably be done directly through field functionaries by leveraging technology, such as tablets and mobile phones. It would also help improve the accuracy of the information collected and increase the likelihood of institutionalizing data collection systems.
In this context, digital interfaces—computers or mobile phones—that combine analytics software and vivid data visualization techniques can provide highly effective decision-support. It distils the essence of the data collected into clear user-directed messages that amplify supervisory efficiency. Therefore, school or hospital inspectors should be able to reliably identify bright and dark geographical locations, or functional areas of failure and success, and target their daily inspections accordingly. Second, they should be liberated from attending repeated and mostly meaningless meetings and be allowed to focus on their primary responsibility—monitoring field work.
Third, instead of rambling over the entire spectrum of their duties, supervisors should be guided into prioritizing work and focusing on critical areas. Strategic supervisors should guide field supervisors in finding this balance without compromising on objectives.
Fourth, routinized inspections and meetings should be replaced with substantive monitoring that focus on critical implementation processes and quality of interventions as measured by outcomes. Given the large jurisdictions—geographical and functional—inspections and meetings should be made to count with rigorous and continuous follow-up so. Finally, supervisors at different levels should co-ordinate responsibilities in a manner that prevents duplication and enables complementary monitoring and follow-up.
Fundamentally, supervisors should focus their energies on guiding and improving the quality of implementation. These aforementioned principles are a good starting point to activate our dormant supervisory bureaucracy and bridge the supervisory deficit. Needless to say, it will require rigorous training before supervisors can function as effective public managers.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org