The STARS project needs an overhaul

June 30, 2020 12:00 am | Updated 03:31 am IST

Instead of building state capability, the World Bank education project gives a larger role to non-state actors

Atmanirbhar Bharat calls for an India that is able to produce and deliver local goods and services to its citizens. This applies equally to education for all children. Delivering a service, like education, requires a capable state, especially given the scale and complexity of its large and diverse population. Building state capability involves a process of learning to do things on one’s own. This is precisely the idea behind an Atmanirbhar Bharat. Fundamentally, therefore, it cannot be outsourced.

In other words, state capability is about getting things done in the government, and by the government, by ensuring effective implementation that is responsive to local needs, but also about being able to design and conduct reforms. However, the World Bank’s STARS project, a $3 billion project to improve education in six Indian States, has the mistaken understanding that state capability should be built by giving a larger role to non-state actors and by increasing the use of technology. Both these premises are misguided as they do not contribute to the capability of the state to deliver better education. The reason is that there are some preconditions for effective governance within the public sector that must be met before either technology or non-state actors can be useful.

For effective governance

First, the administration must be equipped with adequate physical, financial and human resources. An overburdened bureaucracy with vacancies and without basic equipment cannot be expected to be effective. Often one hears that increasing inputs is a waste of resources as they are used inefficiently. This criticism neglects the fact that for efficiency, a critical minimum level of resources is a precondition. Unfortunately, in the education sector we are short of that level in all areas.

Second, administrative or governance reforms must give greater discretion to the front-line bureaucracy to address local issues and innovate if required. This is as much a function of better resources at the local level as of greater decentralisation of decision-making or political authorisation. The movement against corruption and towards accountability has had an unfortunate fallout on innovation for fear of misuse of an increased room for manoeuvre. Yet, for reforms to be successful, public sector entities need to be able to try new things, and at times, to fail. Outsourcing to non-state partners not just takes away discretion from state actors but also a sense of accountability and ownership towards their job.

Third, there needs to be trust within the administration among peers and across different levels within the administration. If suspicion is the guiding principle, institutional arrangements will be geared to monitoring and surveillance, not support and improvement. The goal must be to improve, not to judge and punish.

A flawed approach

Why is the STARS approach to build state capacity flawed? First, it fails to address the basic capacity issues: major vacancies across the education system from District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs), district and block education offices, to teachers in schools, remain unaddressed. Without capable and motivated faculty, teacher education and training cannot be expected to improve. Similarly, at the block level, an already overburdened bureaucracy cannot be expected to perform miracles without a substantial increase in trained manpower, support staff and other forms of institutional support.

Second, the Bank ignores that decentralising decision-making requires the devolution of funds and real decision-making power. Greater decentralisation can allow accountability to flow to the people rather than to supervising officers. It requires not just investment in the capacity of the front-line bureaucracy but also in increasing their discretionary powers while fostering social accountability.

The issue of discretion hinges crucially on trust – the third, important element requiring attention if state capability is to be enhanced. Trust, which implies listening and collaborating across different levels within the administration, is entirely ignored in the World Bank project. Instead, the Bank displays yet again an over-reliance on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as a panacea that lacks any backing in evidence. It is based instead on the idea that a flawed system can be fixed merely through the injection of more and better technology. In fact, technology does not address most of the systemic or governance challenges; it simply bypasses them. This is not to deny that technology has its uses, but its usefulness depends on whether preconditions for an effective use of ICT systems have been put in place. Otherwise the likelihood of exacerbating, rather than solving, problems increases. Technology as a short-cut to creating a capable state has not worked in the past.

Fourth, measurement is seen as a way to improve performance. Yet, just like fever does not go away by checking the temperature more frequently, service delivery does not improve by measurement alone. It is important to know that temperature is high, but more important to understand why it is so. Schools in India need improvement. The question is: should money be invested in improving the capability of the system to improve learning or in testing infrastructure, that too for standardised assessments alone?

Lastly, outsourcing basic governance functions by “expanding private initiatives” and “reducing government tasks” will not make education “more relevant to local needs” or “democratically promote people’s participation by empowering local authorities” as stated in the project document. Institutions of the state, from State-level officials who design policy changes, to district, block, cluster and school-level officials who adapt those policies for solving local problems rely on past experience (institutional memory) to meet new challenges and build additional memories with every new reform they undertake. New private initiatives do not have these institutional memories, nor do they have a grasp of socio-cultural realities that play an important part in the delivery process. While state structures need to develop more skills to enable them to solve both local and structural problems more effectively, it is not clear how they can be imparted by agencies that are extraneous to both the context and the system.

If we want DIETs, block and community resource centres, and schools to be atma nirbhar , we need to enable them to develop their own capability to reform themselves. Outsourcing, an over-reliance on measurement by standardised assessments, and an excessive use of ICT will not get us closer to an Atmanirbhar Bharat. The World Bank would do well to learn from its past mistakes and use evidence, often times generated by its own research arms, to formulate projects. In its current form, STARS is bound to fail to deliver its core objective: to reform the governance architecture in order to improve the quality of education.

Kiran Bhatty is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and Martin Haus is an independent researcher working on public sector reforms

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