NITI Aayog: An institution to fix implementation issues

Live Mint, July 24, 2017

By Pradeep S Mehta

During his last monthly radio address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appreciated the importance of constructive criticism in strengthening democracy and the government’s performance. Enough debates do take place in the country on these aspects though some are too stark and/or too polite. Modi also welcomed independent evaluation of government initiatives—these messages are forward-looking.

Governments in the past have devised different mechanisms to facilitate monitoring and evaluation. An independent evaluation office was set up under the earlier regime but wound up after this government assumed office. It appears that the development monitoring and evaluation office at NITI Aayog is currently responsible for monitoring and impact evaluation of centrally funded programmes. However, we are yet to witness significant improvement in this domain.

Independent monitoring and evaluation is important but not sufficient to ensure the success of policy reforms. It aids in identifying implementation-related challenges but falls short of transforming implementation, which is the need of the hour. This was the central message of a recent debate run by CUTS International Public Policy Centre on the role of NITI Aayog in the context of changing economic realities.

It was pointed out that NITI Aayog is already engaged in outcome-based monitoring with states in sectors such as healthcare, education and water supply. It is now mooting the idea of ranking each state based on health, education and water index, and identifying “champion states”. For instance, it has developed a composite water management index, comprising several key performance indicators, with different weights assigned to indicators. This is expected to incentivise states to collect data and analyse it to make better policies.

This approach of measuring and monitoring progress through ranking and encouraging competition among states is akin to the approach adopted in promoting ease of doing business reforms. Interaction with key stakeholders in different states suggests that owing to self-ranking by states sans independent review, reforms remain mostly on paper with key concerns remaining unaddressed. Moreover, such approach might result in a race to the bottom, as legitimate beneficiaries get excluded by lowering of targets. The vision at the top level of polity and bureaucracy is unable to percolate to the middle and entry levels, resulting in limited change on the ground. Consequently, such approach of self-ranking and comparing needs to be viewed with caution.

The government needs to realize that a business-as-usual approach will work no more, and it needs a comprehensive strategy to transform implementation. Such strategy must comprise working with key stakeholders to identify implementation-related challenges and design solutions. Further, a rigorous independent ex-ante and ex-post assessment of solutions is necessary. Experts suggest that significant improvement in the ability to implement policies and projects in the states, cities, and at the centre can considerably add to citizens’ well-being and could even add about 2-3% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), without any additional resources.

Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary general of CUTS International, Jaipur.

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