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Social audit isn’t enough

It hasn’t led to reduced corruption and improved MGNREGA delivery.

Updated: January 22, 2014 12:41 pm
What explains the apparent lack of effectiveness of social audits? The enforcement of punishments was weak. (PTI) What explains the apparent lack of effectiveness of social audits? The enforcement of punishments was weak. (PTI)

By: Farzana Afridi

It hasn’t led to reduced corruption and improved MGNREGA delivery.

The recent pronouncements by the AAP on measures to hold public officials accountable have brought into sharp focus people’s participation and social accountability as mechanisms to foster transparency and improve the delivery of public programmes. However, so far, there has been an absence of rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of the country’s sole community monitoring initiative espoused by the MGNREGA back in 2005 — social audits. Mandatory social audits prescribed by the MGNREGA intend to empower beneficiaries to scrutinise expenditures and keep track of delivery. In spite of the widespread acclaim of social audits as low-cost and powerful participatory tools, a key question is whether community monitoring has reduced corruption and improved MGNREGA delivery. The assessment of the impact of the only largescale and systematic social audits in the country, in Andhra Pradesh, raises some key issues.

Even if a state government publicly announces regular social audits, the first round of auditing, because of limited state credibility, is likely to take public officials (or transgressors) by surprise and reveal large irregularities in basic programme delivery. Furthermore, local MGNREGA beneficiaries are expected to have high stakes in employment availability and in timely payment, while having sufficient initial capacity to detect transgressions. We can thus anticipate an evolving dynamic process, with more effective local participation through learning, and improved auditing after repeated audits. The drawback is that transgressions may also become more sophisticated. Monitoring may result in the substitution of one type of irregularity for another, as transgressors learn to manipulate the new system.

Given these assumptions, if audits effectively detect malpractices and the threat of punishment is credible, the easy-to-detect irregularities (non-payment of wages or ghost projects) should decline. At the same time, we can expect more hard-to-detect irregularities (those related to procurement of materials) in later audit rounds.

Analysis of data from official audit reports of almost 100 mandals during 2006-10, however, shows that repeated social audits of MGNREGA projects did not reduce the number of corruption-related labour complaints, while there was a substantive rise in material-related complaints. While a modest decline in administrative complaints related to the non-provision of work was observed, there was an increase in complaints of missing records on material expenditures. The impact of audits on other programme outcomes — employment generation, targeting of the SC/ST population — was absent. Increase in local stakeholders’ awareness levels or in the number of MGNREGA projects, selective repeated audits in the more corrupt mandals and possible biases in complaint registrations do not explain this.

The findings suggest that, despite increasing awareness of beneficiaries and the greater capacity of the audit process to detect irregularities, the overall social audit effect on reducing easy-to-detect malpractices was mostly absent. One can interpret the rise in irregularities as an underlying change in the anatomy of corruption and a failure of the social audit process to deter leakage of programme funds.

What explains the apparent lack of effectiveness of social audits in reducing malpractice? The analysis of administrative data on social audit findings in Andhra Pradesh suggests that follow-up and enforcement of punishments was weak. While it is possible that this weakness has been mitigated by the establishment of vigilance cells post-2010, less than 1 per cent of irregularities, for which one or multiple functionaries were held responsible, ended in dismissal, removal or criminal action. Even modest punishment — such as suspension, show-cause, or being deemed ineligible for contractual work — was meted out for less than 3 per cent of detected irregularities. Further, 87 per cent of the missing amount was yet to be recovered.

The responsibility for the implementation of a project under MGNREGA is held collectively by grassroots and block-level functionaries. Yet, the responsibility for most irregularities was pinned on a single gram panchayat level, contractual functionary — the field assistant, typically a resident of the panchayat. “Naming and shaming” might act as an effective deterrent for this particular functionary. However, social sanctions are unlikely to curtail malpractice among other functionaries, who often escape responsibility (such as the block development officer or assistant programme officer) and/ or are panchayat non-residents (like branch postmasters).

The effectiveness of social audits in deterring theft and other malpractices may thus be undermined by a single design weakness or slip-up. A key lesson from the data analysis would thus be to ensure social audits culminate in the type of enforceable and credible “contract” that allocates responsibilities, defines timelines and ensures that those found guilty are promptly penalised. The credibility of the social audit rests ultimately on the ability and willingness of the political and bureaucratic establishment to take effective remedial action against offenders.

A second, critical takeaway is that, without sufficient institutional support, the expectation that beneficiary-led audits should spontaneously arise is unsustainable. Systematic and regular audits with beneficiary participation have not taken off in other parts of the country. To ensure effective bottom-up involvement, beneficiary participation must be induced and strengthened through a combination of top-down and grassroots approaches.

While the potential benefits of public programmes are large, the costs of ensuring that those benefits are realised through beneficiary-led audits are low. But before community monitoring can be scaled up in other parts of the country or for other public programmes, we must strengthen its credibility.

The writer is assistant professor, economics and planning unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi express@expressindia.com

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