Do donors need more (and better) Contract Managers to deliver results?

I have frequently heard that donors are under increasing pressure to spend more with fewer staff. This usually comes from friends and colleagues that work with donor agencies, or those that interact closely with them.

One of my main points in a previous post was that to navigate the results agenda donors need to invest in their staff.

Donors that adopt the ‘results agenda’ (or the value for money agenda, for that matter) need to invest time and resources to ensure their staff fully understand the implications of this agenda, the mechanisms through which it is to be implemented, and most importantly, its limitations. It is possibly redundant to state that ‘context matters’, but it really does. As donors continue to trim down staff, it places greater emphasis on their ability to manage projects and contracts with implementers in ways that are accountable, and yet retain the flexibility necessary for development work. 

The ‘results agenda’ implies an expectation from donor agencies that they record and report results that their funds are able to achieve. The focus therefore is on outputs and outcomes, as well as the cost at which these were achieved, and on demonstrating how they compare against context-relevant benchmarks. For donors, this means selecting the right implementing partners, and holding them to account for the delivery of cost-effective results.

One of the important questions that donors face would be – should your country offices be manned by Programme Managers or Contract Managers? The easy answer of course is to say, “we need both”. But what should be the balance of power between the two?

Prominent donor agencies these days are not short of programme funds. Significant sums of money need to be “programmed”, and in its most elementary form, this could be understood as signing and managing contracts worth the size of your annual budget. Given that donors rely on grantees and contractors to deliver projects, the ability to run competitive procurement processes, and manage tight contracts is critical. Moreover, corporate support services of finance and administration are also under considerable strain in many agencies.

In the areas of service delivery, advocacy or research, leading experts are increasingly to be found not within donor agencies, but in implementing agencies, service providers, think-tanks or research institutes. Donors contract these specialists as required, using a variety of contractual modalities. As more and more technical work is delegated to external agencies, donor staff are required to focus on effective contract management. This naturally reduces the extent of technical resources required in country offices.

All the same, it is important to consider the issue of staff motivation. When development professionals land jobs in big multilateral or bilateral agencies, how do they see their own role? Do they see their role as being efficient administrators of programmes, or are they keen to make a personal impact on the design and execution of programmes they manage? If it is the latter, staff would want to focus on programmes, and try to leave the bulk of the administration to somebody else – which wouldn’t quite work in the scenario that I describe above. One would have to navigate this carefully, creating alternate ways to boost staff morale. Ultimately, this ties into developing a shared organisational vision, mission and work-culture.

On balance, there would seem to be a pretty strong argument for donors to invest in more (and better) Contract Managers. I by no means fit the profile of a contract manager, or an administrator – so I can already hear a chorus of voices loudly protesting this suggestion. As I said earlier – it’s probably true that we need both contract managers and programme managers, but perhaps, the balance of power should tilt towards the former. The retinue of technical experts, researchers, statisticians, communication experts, etc, all have a place of their own – but perhaps are best placed in support functions (at headquarters) that help core contract managers deliver on their responsibilities. Contract managers will be experts not only in drawing up and enforcing contracts, but also have advanced budget and financial management skills.

What of donors that have a strong policy and advocacy focus, you ask? Won’t they need strong technical leads to further their agenda? Yes, that is true, but unless on their own, they form the dominant focus of an agency in a country, the above formulation should still hold. Also, fears of donors removing themselves farther from the reality of implementation if they are staffed increasingly by contract managers is not entirely unfounded, but is certainly not an unresolvable problem, and therefore a risk worth bearing.

As donors and their operational contexts evolve, and as the modalities of development cooperation changes, the strategic choices donors make about how they operate and how they are staffed will continue to evolve.


PS: Two small examples that hold meaning in the context of this post (or perhaps I am being entirely facetious)

  • DFID introduced its Smart Rules last year – a broad operating framework focused on programmes, intended to support DFID staff in improving programme delivery. Out of the 37 mandatory rules listed, I could find no more than 5 that refer directly to designing development programmes, or managing the complexity of their operating environments
  • I find it interesting that USAID is headed by an ‘Administrator’ – perhaps an absolutely honest descriptor of what that position entails, or perhaps entirely misleading – what do you think?

A free fall: politicians’ credibility back to early-2013 levels

This is my latest livemint column


As far as fortunes of political parties go, the first half of 2013 was truly bad. Mega scams had damaged the ruling Congress and its allies; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was serially obstructionist and had yet to decide to rally behind Narendra Modi; there was no Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); and regional parties were sabotaging national foreign policy. A nosediving economy and the aftermath of the horrific Delhi rape incident contributed to the general doom and gloom.

Of course, we all know what happened next. The year 2014 was as starkly different from 2013 as could be. First, the AAP won an election in Delhi and then promptly hit the self-destruct button, but managed to keep themselves in the game. The anti-Congress sentiment galvanized and delivered a historic low of 44 Lok Sabha seats. And the biggest of them all—an unprecedented electoral victory for the BJP, riding on the shoulders of Modi.

There was without question, a hope for change no matter how media-magnified it was. The stock of the political class rose on the back of one man, Modi. It made up for the disenchantment with the street-fighting tactics of the AAP. The marginalization of Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and the Congress across the country added to the narrative of victory of democracy. The string of state assembly successes that followed for the BJP solidified and sustained the sentiment till the end of the year.

Midway through 2015, though, politicians are facing yet another credibility crisis. To be clear though, credibility of politicians no longer has much to do with how effective the state is in driving development. Even secularism and corruption are no longer credibility-damaging factors. What primarily affects credibility today is hubris.

The Congress was never expected to recover particularly quickly, and it has stayed true to that promise. With little credibility of its own, its protestations against the BJP’s misdemeanours sound quite contrived. Certainly, there is very little the Congress can do to restore the credibility of politicians in India. Finally, in the last year, myriad regional parties including the AAP, Samajwadi Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the parties in Bihar have in their own ways continued to hurt the trust their voters placed in them.

Obviously though, the burden of restoring the credibility of the state and its agents rests on the ruling party, the BJP. And in this regard, Prime Minister Modi has come up way short. First of all, every minister and official in the government, as well as every member of the BJP, have repeatedly proven that this is a Modi government. It follows logically, therefore, that the failings of the government, irrespective of where they originate, must end up at the doors of our Prime Minister.

As he campaigned tirelessly, Modi asked for 60 months to fulfil his promises. He was given that. There were 100-day targets to meet, which led him to declare that the country wouldn’t afford him a honeymoon period. He was not wrong. Expectations ballooned, keeping pace with promises. Predictably, the command-and-control governance style ran into myriad problems within the first year, the biggest of all being a sluggish economy that just refused to be jolted into action.

There was plenty to fix and BJP president Amit Shah’s #AchheDin calculator started showing it wasn’t a matter of one term, but perhaps five. Even repatriation of black money, an effective campaign rhetoric, was derided as a mere chunaavi jumla (election platitude).

The Madhya Pradesh jobs scam was on slow boil since 2009, but under a media spotlight, the brazenness of the BJP, the allegations against Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and the stubborn silence of Modi have further exposed the arrogance of the political class.

Further, the questions around impropriety in the Lalit Modi affair have been brushed aside. Those that had positioned themselves as outsiders to Lutyens’ Delhi have in fact just shown that the names may change, but the hubris seems to be a heritage that gets passed on to whosoever occupies the seats of power.

One sees this hubris also in the manner in which the Film and Television Institute of India chairmanship issue is being handled. It’s hard to escape an uneasy feeling in the cloak and dagger manner in which Reserve Bank of India reforms are being contemplated, or the meddling with the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, or even in the recent attempt to ban pornographic websites. It is unfortunate that a government that has an overwhelming mandate from India’s youth is ready to squander it away so easily.

In the four years that remain, one hopes our politicians can reverse this trend. If the government alone cannot pull them through, someone else needs to stand up and be counted.

Sundar Pichai’s innocent tech-optimism

By now, everyone has heard of the new Google CEO. On what drives him:

I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, (whether) you were a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.

Hardly unexpected, coming from him.

But the truth is: Google works only as well as you can make it do. Forget about professors and rural kids, even regular internet users are not equals in front of Google. Not only is google-ing a skill, the very access to internet is determined by a host of factors that determine the opportunities you get growing up.

Maybe I should just send him a copy of the Geek Heresy

Local governance in action: Councillors and Residents in Hove Park, UK

This is a summary of a project I undertook with Noemi de la Fuente and Andrew John Edwards at IDS in 2009. This summary also appears here, as an example of a ‘power analysis’

1. The application:

This study used the ‘spaces’ and ‘forms’ dimensions of the power cube to investigate a small-scale, local expression of participation in the UK’s system of local governance.

2. The case:

In the UK local councillors are the lowest tier of governance, representing wards which in cities constitute small sub-sections of the urban area, with jurisdiction over a range of issues which is limited but important to residents in their everyday lives. In a scenario fairly typical of the UK, in one ward in the city of Brighton and Hove (Stanford Ward), local councillors are actively involved in their local residents’ associations, civil society bodies through which residents of a particular street or area (usually smaller than a ward) discuss and address issues that pertain to that area.

The extent to which residents’ associations have formalised structures and procedures varies considerably, as does the extent to which members and other residents feel able to contribute to the decision-making that is carried out in them. Of the two residents’ associations considered in this case, one has a loose structure and open mandate such that it can be a vehicle for addressing a wide range of issues; the other is more formally structured and well-defined in its purpose. In both cases, local councillors occupy key leadership roles – apparently because they are prepared and able to give time and commitment that other residents may not be.

Councillors who act as leaders in these spaces occupy hybrid roles: elected representative with a voice in council decision-making, and resident with a concern for what’s going on locally and a sense of civic duty. Their leadership roles, and relative expertise and capability in taking action on the problems raised, could easily lead to their domination of the residents’ associations – although as they are simultaneously elected representatives of the same constituency resident-citizens may perceive this as legitimate. At the same time, in a practical sense, their dual role performs a useful function of intermediation between citizens and representatives in a context where popular participation in local governance is generally extremely minimal.

3. The analysis:

The study argues that residents’ associations constitute claimed spaces in which local residents get to express and discuss their concerns. Their different internal structures create different power dynamics. Although the looser association presents more opportunities for engagement by local residents, as its remit is not limited, the informality of the structure creates a lot of space in which the leadership can exercise hidden power to determine which issues make it onto the agenda and get acted upon. The formality of the other group makes the agenda-setting process more visible and transparent as it is carried out by a managing committee, however this structure may also limit the opportunities for other residents to participate in the association. The hybrid role of councillor-leaders within the associations means that the ‘space’ that is created is one in which the claimed and the invited come together, and are embedded in each other.

One notable feature of the agendas addressed by the residents’ associations is their very small scope and scale: they address the very limited range of immediate, practical issues that local councils are empowered to deal with in the UK system. One framing of this is that it is an expression of invisible power, in that residents are complying with and legitimating the very tight boundaries on what can be dealt with at a local level and what citizens can engage with directly, even though it could be argued that it would be more in their interests to pursue a broadening of those boundaries. Pushing for deeper democracy at a local level might be rationally a better use of residents’ time and energy than solving tiny problems one by one.

An alternative framing is that it is an expression of the arrangement of visible power in the UK – simply an artefact of living in a quite centralised polity. Citizens may be complacent, or they may be making an informed choice to comply with a political arrangement which may not deliver participatory democracy at the local level but has other advantages that UK citizens value.

4. Implications & significance

This analysis demonstrates how taking a ‘power look’ at democratic relations, even in a well-established, deeply entrenched democracy, can lead to reappraisal. In this case it seems to open up the possibility of exploring the potential of hybrid and embedded relationships between governors and governed as means of deepening democracy without starting from the assumption of a need for wholesale institutional reform.

At the same time it is interesting to note how just the process of looking for different forms of power brings to light perspectives which get beyond seeing all citizen – council interaction as inherently ‘a good thing for democracy’ by raising questions about what power relations are being reinforced at the same time – and, in this case, the limitations of local democracy in the UK.

Dibakar Banerjee on the government’s malicious ways with the FTII

Dibakar Banerjee’s column in the Indian Express on the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) scandal is a must-read.

The handling of the institute’s chairmanship by the government is a case study, simultaneously in both incompetence and arrogance. And to be clear, this is also not the way to initiate a debate about whether the FTII should continue to receive government funding or not. This attitude of sneaky opportunism is the same as when the government issued advertisements using the wrong version of the Indian constitution and then had their supporters then ask for a debate on whether the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ should continue to appear in the preamble. Dibakar refers to that here:

The real issue (the surreptitious planting of five Hindutva-championing political appointees and under-qualified nominees in a teaching institute’s governing body) was hijacked and muddled with nonsense (shrill TV debates about only the chairman’s appointment; smart-sounding debate on privatisation; cleverly planted data for the data-loving Indian — x lakh rupees spent per student, x number of strikes in the past years).

He lays out the government’s preferred MO in handling these matters, and this is not limited just to the FTII.

Do something blatantly wrong — quietly. Hope no one protests. When someone does, come on heavy with the deliberate gravitas of the venerable state and paint the aggrieved as troublemakers. Then, closing off avenues of discussion, force them to organise civil protest. Citing breach of peace, protocol or law, unleash police, legal and administrative action against them. Further, if it is a small group of protesters and easy targets like filmmakers or artists without political heft, browbeat, intimidate and slander them with threatening calls, physical intimidation and name-calling. 

And concludes with:

Unless we, the free citizens of India, vocally assert now that protesting against the government (of whatever political hue) is not being anti-India but the exercise of a civil right. That being against jingoistic nationalism is not being against the nation. That fighting back against meddling bullies is the patriotism India needs desperately. And that this fight starts in our classrooms. 

The problem here – not unlike other instances of the government meddling with institutions – is that of mass apathy. These debates will continue to be confined to a few. And when I say a few, I do not mean the trolls on twitter. I mean the educated elite that actively plugged through 2013-14 for a government led by Modi. Most among those have gone back to sleep. We need them to rekindle their interest in government and public policy, and do what is right. Is this the government they wanted to see? Does this not leave them ashamed?

This government will ignore its critics. That much is well-known. Is it ready to ignore a section of its supporters as well?

Don’t blindly trust Raghuram Rajan, but then don’t trust a one-man government either

The controversy over the Monetary Policy Committee has been an unseemly one, and one that inadvertently shows the Reserve Bank of India Governor, Raghuram Rajan, in poor light for little fault of his. The proposal is that the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) should have seven members, four of whom would be nominated by the government, and the RBI governor would have a casting vote, but not a veto. This, by the way, was not a recommendation made by the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC), as some have reported. Nevertheless, the idea of moving away from an all-powerful individual to the wisdom of a committee is worth debating, and should not just be dismissed because of how overawed one is of Raghuram Rajan.

My main observation on this ‘enlightened RBI governor’ versus ‘democratic expert panel’ is the complete dissonance between the political reality of our union government and the spirit of the reform it is trying to push in the RBI. If the council of ministers in government had not emasculated itself so completely to one individual, I would be less skeptical of such ‘progressive’ reform proposal.

Further, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely’s attempts to pass this off as an FSLRC recommendation also suggests that this proposal doesnt pass the smell test.