The unit of change we aim for can make or break reforms

When the unit of change was a ‘court,’ going paperless significantly improved the user experience but resulted in vast duplication of efforts.
When the unit of change was a ‘court,’ going paperless significantly improved the user experience but resulted in vast duplication of efforts.


  • A ‘unit of change’ is a component of a system that’s the focal point for transformation efforts. As seen with education and the judiciary, clarity on what exactly we are trying to fix makes a major difference to outcomes.

One of the most critical yet often overlooked parts of the reform process is determining what should be the ideal ‘unit of change’ of the proposed transformation. What do we mean by this? A ‘unit of change’ is a component of a system that’s the focal point for transformation efforts. It could be a geography, a function, a process, an institution, a policy or any other distinctly identifiable element that, when modified, is capable of catalysing broad systemic improvements. 

By way of example, consider reform efforts in education. One approach could be to target the ‘school’ as the ‘unit of change.’ When this is the case, the reform agenda could include developing new curricula, different pedagogy or making changes in the administrative processes of the school. On the other hand, if the ‘unit of change’ is the child, reform efforts would focus on improving learning and development outcomes.

Also read: School reforms under NEP 2020 must not be allowed to languish

Identifying the correct unit of change is crucial for the success of a given reform, as it sets the stage for the depth, scale and scope of transformation.

Consider, for example, reforming the justice system. The Supreme Court’s e-Courts Project, which aims to transform the Indian judiciary through technology, has, from time to time, adopted different units of change. In some instances, it has treated its ‘function’ as the unit of change, looking to digitize filings and summons, or implement video conferencing as an alternative to personal presence in the courtroom. 

In other instances, it has treated the ‘court’ as the unit of change, looking to invest time and resources in making courts paperless. When it set up ‘virtual courts challans,’ it treated the ‘dispute type’ (in this case traffic disputes) as the unit of change.

The impact and potential of each of these approaches has been drastically different.

When ‘function’ was the unit of change, people were able to file or argue matters remotely. While this is a critical value proposition for users, because it merely layered a digital process over existing analog processes without carrying out proper process-re-engineering, the new system inherited the shortcomings of its analog predecessor.

When the unit of change was a ‘court,’ going paperless significantly improved the user experience but resulted in vast duplication of efforts as physical filings had to be scanned and uploaded and orders had to first be printed before being scanned and uploaded.

However, when the e-Courts Project chose ‘dispute type’ as the unit of change when it set up virtual courts for traffic challans, it re-engineered all the processes involved in the dispute, right from the moment the traffic violation happened. As a result, these virtual courts can receive digital challans directly from cameras of the traffic police. 

They can generate digital summons to send violators’ phones, offering an option to pay a fine online or contest the case. We found that most of the cases in the Delhi Virtual Traffic challan courts are settled at this stage itself, hugely simplifying the process for litigants.

Choosing the correct unit of change also creates a cascade effect on subsequent choices and strategies. It also helps orient efforts and improves efficiency by focusing them. So, it is critical to evaluate what the most appropriate unit of change is in a given context. Here are some questions:

Does the unit of change align with the overarching goals of the proposed reform? If the objective is to improve well-being in society, are we aligned with this goal if we treat ‘disease,’ say, as the unit of change and track progress around it?

Is the unit of change feasible and practical? Does it take into account factors like resource availability, stakeholder capacity, ease of adoption, etc?

Does the chosen unit of change give us the most bang for our buck? What is the point of intervention that holds the most significant influence over the functioning and outcomes of the broader system or organization?

Identifying the appropriate unit of change is not easy and often fiercely contested by stakeholders, particularly when they have divergent incentives. The choice also needs to be constantly revisited to ensure that it remains relevant. This is, therefore, an iterative journey of discovery, innovation and collaboration.

While there may not be a one-size-fits-all answer, determining the unit of change must become an essential part of the process of any transformation. When we determine the unit of change, we set the compass direction before embarking on our transformation journey. 

Also read: Governance reform: Karthik Muralidharan’s treatise is refreshingly new

It also helps us target our interventions, directing our efforts with precision towards the areas where change will yield the greatest dividends. This not only conserves resources, but also amplifies the effectiveness of the reform.

It is also important to collect data and evidence to help us analyse which unit of change is more practical and feasible in terms of governance, change management, resource availability and political space. We must attempt to foresee the risks of each unit of change and ways we can mitigate them or even creatively flip them around to serve instead as advantages.

When we make these determinations collaboratively with decision-makers and change-makers, we foster community participation in reform efforts from the very beginning. It can help break down a large amorphous vision into a practical roadmap that everyone can contribute to.

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