Midday meal rankings are a good first step. They need to be done right.
The ministry of human resource developments midday meal (MDM) department ranked the performance of state governments using 15 indicators,last month. Performance-based ranking is a well-recognised tool for promoting accountability in government service delivery. Rankings of this nature help highlight performance quality,induce competitiveness and,perhaps most importantly,enable an analysis of what works,what doesnt and what gaps need to be plugged. The rankings are thus an important first step toward addressing the many governance failures that contributed to the tragedy in Gandaman in Bihar in July. But there is much that can be done to improve the ranking process.
First,the biggest challenge in developing a ranking system is the quality of data available. Last year,Accountability Initiative conducted a research study which tracked money and expenditure in the midday meal programme in four districts in north India. Finding reliable,high-quality data was the biggest challenge. Crucial financial documents like monthly progress reports are often not maintained at the district level. And even when reports are compiled,the quality is variable. We came across monthly reports where the numbers that were reported were based on a formula devised by the authorities rather than on the actual releases by the district.
In another case,we found that the annual statement was missing information for some months because the concerned officers hard disk had crashed. We also found that financial data is often recorded in multiple documents,which are updated as and when new information is received from schools. However,there is no systematic method to this updation and often the numbers dont add up. We faced similar problems at the school level. Our surveyors encountered schools where passbooks and other accounting documents had been stolen or lost in the flood and where documents were available,crucial pieces of information like the opening balance (money and food grains left over from previous years) were simply not recorded.
Building a robust,reliable computerised management information system,which records key indicators in real time,is the first step that the ministry must take. This should be combined with independent evaluations of the MDM. Here,the ministry would do well to learn from large-scale surveys like ASER a well known national survey that tracks learning outcomes among rural elementary school-going children. ASER is unique not just for what it tracks but also for the fact that the survey is conducted entirely by citizen groups – as many as 30,000 volunteers implement it annually. Involving citizens in the process of data collection,in a manner similar to ASER,is an innovative way of building transparency and accountability systems in the MDM. Surveys of this nature could be facilitated through the newly set up Independent Evaluation Office.
Second,what gets measured gets done. One of the risks with ranking exercises is that they can end up incentivising the wrong things. The indicators used in the current MDM rankings run the risk of doing just this. The ranking is based on a set of 15 inputs,such as financial utilisation,foodgrain utilisation,completion of construction targets,etc. But the objective of the MDM scheme is to provide a nutritious meal and none of the indicators focus on the quality of food provided. Identifying the right set of performance indicators,which incentivise quality provision of food,is another challenge for the ministry.
Third,while state-level indicators are useful,the real potential of a ranking system will only be realised if it can be made relevant at the school,block and district level – where the programme is in fact implemented. One way of doing this is to create school-level report cards and widely publicise them across the district. Report cards of this nature could go a long way in empowering school management committees – parent committees,which under the Right to Education Act are mandated to monitor school-level functioning. The ministry has the skills to do this. For over 10 years now,education officials across the country have been collecting school-level data to build a national database of school report cards.
Finally,the real test of the potential of rankings will lie in how they are used. One possibility is to use them as the basis for a district-level innovation fund that rewards high-ranking schools and gram panchayats. Financial rewards programmes are not new to government. The sanitation sector has been running,to some degree of success,the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (a reward scheme for panchayats that achieve sanitation status) since the mid 2000s. Where implemented well,it has served as an incentive for gram panchayats and communities to take ownership of the programme and develop locally relevant,sustainable strategies for achieving total sanitation.
The Bihar tragedy brought home the enormous governance deficit in Indias service delivery systems. The good news,as the HRD ministrys ranking effort seems to suggest,is that the government has acknowledged this challenge and is looking for solutions. The rankings are a great first step.
The writer is director,Accountability Initiative,Delhi