It was way back in 2009 that the President’s address to the joint session of Parliament referred to the creation of an Independent Evaluation Office to undertake an impartial assessment of government programmes, especially the massive flagship projects (such as National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) etc) funded by the Indian government. Late in 2010, the Union Cabinet approved the establishment of such an office, within the Planning Commission of India and announced that the proposed body will have ‘full functional autonomy’ and will ‘also advise the Planning Commission and the implementing agencies in developing appropriate management systems consistent with the evaluation objectives’. Given that the IEO is yet to be operational (gauged on the basis of information available in the public domain), here is an agenda for action for the proposed body.
Being evaluated is no fun, especially when you think the evaluators are outsiders and are out to get you. Here is how the government of India could set up the proposed Independent Evaluation Office (IEO).
First, the government needs to clarify the exact nature of independence that the IEO will enjoy. The IEO is supposed to operate at an arm’s length from the rest of the government. Exactly how long of arm this is will make all the difference. This is however not as simple as it sounds, given the divided nature of our federal state and polity. It will be evident to anyone who cares that any move to evaluate performance of its flagship schemes is likely to force the government to cross paths with state governments who are in charge of implementing these schemes. Issues regarding ring-fenced funding and fund flows have been frequent flashpoint, but in these days of massive corruption scandals in schemes such the NRHM, programme evaluations may become politically untenable.
Second, the IEO needs to clarify its mandate. Based on news reports, it appears that there are various suggestions for what the IEO should focus on. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Jairam Ramesh argued that the office should conduct real-time monitoring of programmes such as those under the Ministry of Rural Development. Others have recommended that the IEO conduct rigorous impact evaluations of government flagship schemes to estimate the precise impact of these schemes on beneficiaries. Both types of studies have their place in informing policymaking and arriving at a balance between process evaluations and impact evaluations will be critical to the IEO getting off to a good start. For a start, the IEO could focus on getting the basics right – real expenditure on the ground, programme outputs, targeting, etc.
Third, the IEO would be well-advised to start small. Evaluating flagship schemes spanning over 20 states and with budgetary outlays running into hundreds of crores is a laudable goal. However, the enormity of the task should daunt the best of planners and researchers. Gathering ground-level data on the government’s flagship schemes seems wishful when we are encountered with scenarios such as the one where there were massive discrepancies between the Total Sanitation Campaign’s official figures and the decadal Census figures.
Also, impact evaluations may provide information on the overall effect of government programmes, but if the effect does not meet expectations, will likely not provide sufficient information on whether this is due to a deficiency in the design or in implementation. An attempt to place accountability for the same will most likely land us back in a political battle between the Union government and the states. In this scenario, one of the objectives of the IEO could be to see how existing surveys such as the National Sample Survey can be improved to study specific schemes and geographies.
Fourth, although established within the Planning Commission and supposed to focus on schemes operational nation-wide, for a start, the IEO should be strategic in picking its partner state governments. For example, picking states that have articulated and demonstrated a political will to reform its public programmes would be a significant advantage. If this cuts across a wide political spectrum, it would also provide a platform to demonstrate the IEO’s impartiality and autonomy.
A common theme that emerges from the above is the need for the Indian government to demonstrate a willingness to empower the IEO with genuine functional autonomy, while it takes small steps towards charting an impact evaluation agenda for itself. Moreover, the government needs to also equip (and burden) the IEO with the power to seek convergence among the evaluation and measurement efforts currently in place within the government. I would rather have the IEO fail trying, than succeed by skirting these critical issues.
From my latest piece in livemint