In theory, the recent policy announcement regarding the direct cash transfers is a great example of implementing a learning agenda that would follow a sequence of steps—an ambitious technology platform is used to announce a roll-out, the government chooses pilot districts and then proposes to roll out the programme to the rest of the country. The reality however, is far less encouraging, with the policy announcement seemingly rushed through with an eye on the 2014 elections. There is absolutely nothing wrong in governments attempting to win elections on the back of effective policymaking and to suggest otherwise or to label cash transfers as ‘bribes’ is just plain stupid. However, unfortunately we seem to have a scenario where fallible technology is being pushed through by a government that appears not only muddled conceptually, but also one that has not thought through the entire implementation chain.
A genuine attempt at implementing a systematic learning approach would have taken care of most of these fears and also provided a platform for genuine improvisation in the use of technology in ensuring security and reliability at scale. The example of MGNREGA, often quoted by the minister for rural development, Jairam Ramesh, as another instance where the government followed a phased roll-out, starting with 200 districts in the country, is not an encouraging precedent. Seven years into the scheme, the MoRD’s Sameeksha report (2012) reveals that the average person-days per employed household has crossed 50 only once inspite of widespread distress in rural areas. Also, ensuring full and timely payments continues to be a challenge, demonstrating how last mile connectivity issues are yet to be sorted out in the implementation of government schemes.
The question that arises then is the following—what needs to be done to institute a learning cycle for policymaking? This is a question relevant for almost all kinds of policy decisions and legislations. I have, in previous columns, highlighted the importance of a monitoring and evaluation framework for organizational learning. A combination of concurrent process evaluations and ex-post evaluations can yield significant dividends for public agencies. A recent paper by Lant Pritchett, Salimah Samji and Jeffrey Hammer (Pritchett et al) for UNU-WIDER, draws on existing evaluation techniques and calls for organizations to actively seek ‘experiential learning’. This would be a structured system of iterative learning through design variations in implementation.
It is easy to see how this can be used in the case of cash transfers. Various questions regarding the efficacy of alternate implementation strategies can be tested and lessons incorporated in the programme design. For instance, it is unclear at this point how cash (or benefits, as the government now wants to call them) will actually reach the hands of the poor. How should banking correspondents be incentivized and regulated so that they may succeed where post-offices have failed before? The ministry of finance could work with its counterparts in the states and with banks to initiate pilots that test design variations. This will of course require greater coordination with a wider set of stakeholders at the design stage, but will yield a rich evidence-base that would immediately place direct cash transfers on a firmer footing. Demonstrating that the government is prepared to discard what does not work and enhance what seems to work could even convert some of the critics!
Could this also have been an opportunity to experiment with mobile money (through cellphones) at a large scale? After all, the kind of transfers that the government is talking of currently could benefit immensely from a system that integrates the Aadhar with a mobile money transfer infrastructure on the lines of Kenya’s highly successful M-Pesa—and enables monetary transactions with the local PDS outlet or kirana shop. There hasn’t been much mention of the 600 million cellphone subscriptions in this context.
It is also fascinating that while the central government has announced that the scheme will not include food subsidies, the Delhi government, led by the same political party went ahead and announced a scheme that promised a cash transfer of Rs.600 for buying food. Irrespective of these paradoxes and whether they are politically (or electorally) motivated, this slew of policy announcements is an opportunity for the governments to show that these are innovative social security promotion measures being rolled out after rigorously testing the waters.