written by Salimah Samji.
Anyone who has ever worked in India knows how hard it is to implement programs. The sheer size of the country makes it impossible for anyone but the government, who is the only one with infrastructure and reach, to provide public services to its citizens. Currently, every district administers typically 100+ development schemes. Each scheme has its own rules, regulations, reporting, and funding. Districts are continuously burdened with new schemes and more work without the requisite resources. They are often understaffed and have few (if any) skilled functionaries to be able to do their job. The reality is that 90% of the time is spent on routine day-to-day management leaving no time for strategic planning or experimentation.
To address the capacity and implementation gaps in backward districts which are isolated and less developed, the Ministry of Rural Development launched the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF) in 2012. The aim of the fellowship was to provide catalytic support to the district administration to help improve the delivery of programs and to develop a cadre of committed development professionals. The eligibility criteria was a minimum of a four-year degree from a recognized university. The fellows were to work for 2-3 years under the supervision of the District Collector, and paid INR 75,000 ($1,210) per month with a 10% increment each year subject to performance. That is a very generous amount. The rationale was to attract younger people who were passionate about development and willing to go to remote areas, but could not afford the low wages. In essence this was a way to bring in new blood into the system.
816 applicants were shortlisted from a total of 8,560 applicants for a group discussion and a personal interview. 156 fellows were selected to work across 82 districts in 9 states. Each state decided on the placement of fellows with 1-3 per district. Currently there are 137 fellows from the first batch and a second batch has just been selected. For more details see the TEDx talk.
- Building the trust of the States/District Collectors: When the program was initially announced, it was viewed suspiciously by some (i.e. was the center sending monitors to the states/districts?). Many meetings were held to explain and clarify the objectives of the program and to bring the states on board.
- Ineffective use of the fellows: Depending on the District Collector, some fellows were welcomed and given a lot of responsibility and authority to experiment, while some others were used as glorified executive assistants – which is also understandable given the lack of human resources at the district level.
- Lack of authority to issue instructions or to sanction funds: The fellows are not part of the government bureaucracy and therefore have no signing authority and cannot issue orders to lower level functionaries. As a result, they need to go to the District Collector with all those requests leading to time delays and inefficiencies. To address this, the state of Andhra Pradesh has delegated a budget head specifically for the fellows.
- High monthly salary is attracting applicants who are not necessarily passionate about development: This has been an unintended consequence and they have tried to be more mindful in the interviews for the 2nd batch of fellows.
- What happens after the fellows leave? One criticism is that they are building temporary capacity. To address this, the second batch will be offered one year of public service after their fellowship. However, this issue remains a challenge.
- “I still remember an incident from my initial days, when a village welcomed and garlanded me saying: We are receiving our first government official in our village after Independence.“
- “… working with the field staff in implementation of these schemes was not always easy. My efforts at convincing them and the higher authorities did not yield fruit every time. The convergence of different schemes has also been a challenge as each scheme has different criteria for beneficiary selection and process of implementation. However, struggling with these issues every day helped me understand the minutest details of these schemes and the complexities involved in the development sector.”
- “This last one year as a PMRDF has helped me develop both personally and professionally. It has given me a chance to work and interact with people at every level of the hierarchy, starting with the panchayat secretary and going up to state officials.”
- “The last one year has been a period of immense pleasure, satisfaction, frustration, learning and un-learning … There were difficulties: sluggishness, winning the trust of various actors and bringing them onto common platform to get the ball rolling, getting bogged down with too many operational formalities needing to continuously establish yourself within the system. I learnt that things will happen if there is strong will. I learnt of a number of unsung heroes who keep things going—unappreciated and unrecognized—but making a difference each day with their integrity.” This comment is a great illustration of Matt Andrew’s multi-agent leadership paper, Who really Leads Development?
The PMRDF is a work in progress with a lot of learning, iterating and adaptation. There are no easy solutions when you are working on implementation intensive programs. It will be interesting to see what other lessons are learned from this dynamic experiment of trying to solve capacity issues at the last mile of service delivery.