Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort last August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the need to replace the Planning Commission with a new institution that could lead India into the 21st century. The NITI Aayog, which met for the first time this Friday, will work towards furthering cooperative federalism. It is meant to serve as a state-of-the-art resource centre for research on policy innovations, propagate a culture of high-quality monitoring and evaluation as well as promote collaboration between policymakers and researchers. These are laudable ideals, but what exactly will the NITI Aayog do different from the old Planning Commission to meet these objectives?
Evidence-informed policy and practice could provide the NITI Aayog with a distinct and effective approach to meet its mandate. Simply put, evidence-informed policymaking is an approach that aims to integrate the best available scientific evidence into the design of public policies. Central and state governments make hundreds of policy decisions, small and big, every day that have an impact on millions of lives: How can government schools improve the quality of learning at the primary level? How can we effectively fight malnutrition among children? How should payments in MGNREGA be structured to reduce delays and corruption? Good intentions alone are not enough to address these and many other vexing development issues, often because it is difficult to predict or change people’s behaviour. Fortunately, many of these policy questions have been rigorously researched, including through randomised controlled trials, widely regarded as the “gold standard” for measuring impact, leading to valuable insights into which policies work, which don’t and why.
But not all of this research finds its way into government policies. This is often because we lack a unifying mechanism within government that can synthesise a diverse array of scientific evidence, from India and other developing countries, and provide coherent recommendations for policymakers. To be sure, this isn’t easy. This is also why a centrally located government think tank like the NITI Aayog, which can command the necessary resources and attention, is well placed to play this role.
By ensuring that a policy innovation from any state, regardless of the party in power, gets due attention and becomes a template for other states as long as it is backed by rigorous scientific evidence, the NITI Aayog can give a unique meaning to the idea of cooperative federalism. In policy areas where evidence is scarce, the NITI Aayog can actively promote collaborations between policymakers and researchers by funding and rigorously testing policy innovations at the pilot stage, before recommending them for scale.
Institutions promoting evidence-informed policymaking at the national level are increasingly gaining traction around the world. In 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron set up a Behavioural Insights Team, also called the “nudge unit”, which later spurred a network of “What Works Centres”, established to improve the way government creates, shares and uses high-quality evidence for decision-making.
The results have been impressive. The unit’s work has led to an increase in tax collection rates by altering the messages of reminder letters, boosted court fine payments by sending personalised text reminders and improved the effectiveness of a job counselling programme.
In 2013, the White House too set up a Social and Behavioural Sciences Team with an identical mission — to explore how social and behavioural insights can be used by federal agencies to design public policies that work better, cost less and serve citizens better. This was preceded by a What Works Clearinghouse, set up by the US department of education in 2002, to provide a resource centre that could guide informed decision-making in education policies. Till date, the centre has reviewed more than 10,500 studies, on topics that range from improving adolescent literacy to helping students with learning disabilities.
The initiatives of the UK and US governments mirror the larger movement in international development towards rigorous impact evaluations as well as greater use of empirical evidence and behavioural insights in designing social programmes. This comes from a realisation that despite decades of effort in designing and implementing anti-poverty programmes, there is little consensus on the most effective strategies for improving the lives of the poor. Reflecting this thought, the World Development Report 2015, the flagship report of the World Bank, focuses on mind, society and behaviour and makes a strong case for the application of behavioural science in development.
To achieve this in practice will require the NITI Aayog to overcome two key challenges: accessing high-quality researchers in multiple disciplines who can partner with policymakers, and creating a willingness among policymakers to learn from evidence instead of relying solely on intuitions or ideologies. However, there is no reason to believe this can’t be done in India as it has in the UK and US. In fact, the state of Tamil Nadu has already taken a step in this direction.
Last year, the government of Tamil Nadu entered into a partnership with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) to institutionalise the use of evidence in policymaking by rigorously evaluating innovative programmes before they are scaled up, strengthening monitoring systems and enhancing the officials’ capacity to generate and use data. In perhaps a first for any state government in India, the Tamil Nadu government also set up an Innovation Fund, with an annual allocation of Rs 150 crore, through which any government agency can access resources for pilot innovation programmes through a competitive process. There is sustained commitment across the highest levels of the government of Tamil Nadu to advance evidence-informed policymaking through these initiatives. In a short span of time, five evaluations of promising interventions have been initiated, covering preventative health, school education and skill development, with many more in the pipeline.
If the Tamil Nadu government can challenge its officials to find creative and rigorously tested solutions to reduce poverty, the government of India certainly can as well. Indeed, this was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam’s recommendation to the prime minister at the recent meeting of chief ministers in Delhi, held to discuss the new institution to replace the Planning Commission. Citing his government’s efforts to promote the use of evidence, Panneerselvam said, “Tamil Nadu would welcome a similar move towards empirical evidence-based policymaking at the government of India level as well.” The ball is in the NITI Aayog’s court.
The writer heads the policy team at J-PAL South Asia at the Institute for Financial Management Research.