Dealing with a wicked hard problem in India

Guest blog post by S. Nagarajan

I recently joined the PDIA online course, inspired by attending the launch of the Building State Capability Book at the Center for International Development at Harvard University.

A few weeks into the course, I was introduced to the typology of the capability required depending on the task. The task could be

  1. Policy making (and elite concentrated services) which requires relatively few people to implement;
  2. Logistics, where a large number of agents follow simple scripts without exercising much judgement or discretion, and act on objective facts;
  3. Implementation intensive services delivery, requiring a large number of agents engaged in complicated actions involving discretion and interact with people who benefit from the service;
  4. Implementation intensive imposition of obligations, which could be resisted by the people; and finally
  5. Wicked hard tasks which combine transaction intensive, discretionary, and are not based on a known technology.

Learning this typology reminded me of a wicked hard problem some of us had encountered as heads of districts in Tamil Nadu State, India and how we solved it.

The state government provided welfare assistance to differently abled persons, depending upon their level of disability. In May 2011, the assistance was doubled to one thousand rupees a month. However, to get the assistance sanctioned, the applicant had to approach several departments in sequence – (i)  a panel of three doctors, including the relevant specialist, would certify the level of disability; (ii) the district officer of the department for differently-abled would issue an identity card based on the doctors’ certification; (iii) the sub-district administration responsible for social security would sanction the assistance. This would need the recommendation of a chain of officials from the village-level upwards. If the applicant was below a certain age, a committee had to be convened to specially permit the sanction of the assistance. Each of these processes was an implementation intensive service delivery task. Typically, there could be thousands of agents responsible for the service delivery, working in offices and hospitals dispersed all over the district. The applicants simply could not navigate all these processes in sequence. The coordinated service delivery was a wicked hard problem for the district administration.

Years earlier, while working as the assistant to the head of another district, I had seen how this could be solved- by conducting camps. My friends heading other districts and I proceeded to conduct camps for the differently-abled in each sub-district. On designated days, the doctors and all officials from the relevant departments would be available at a single venue. The differently-abled persons who were interested in assistance were mobilized by elected functionaries of local governments to the venue, and all the processes completed synchronously within a day. Public spirited organizations pitched in by providing support for transport, food and organization. Many other departments of the state government that has programs targeted at the differently-abled were also present to serve.

While the overall task was wicked hard, we figured out intuitively that the solution was to reduce the problem to it implementation intensive elements, and also to reduce discretion greatly –transforming the task into almost a logistical problem.

  • Firstly, the agents could not be absent from the camp. A village level official is a busy person and might not be always present at the office: the applicant could now expect to see him at the camp with certainty.
  • Second, the applicant is more confident and assertive of her rights in the camp with thousands of fellow applicants and well-wishers, rather than singly meeting the agents in their own offices – ‘the lion in the den’.
  • Third, the agents cannot wrongly exercise discretion leading to errors of inclusion or exclusion under official and public scrutiny.
  • Fourth, bringing together agents of the same type allowed them to exchange notes, build up their body of knowledge and decide fairly on each case.
  • Finally, the camp ethos was to err on the side of liberality so that more people benefitted by the welfare program. However, it should be noted the problem cannot be reduced to logistics – a doctor or a professional administrator carries a body of knowledge that cannot be reduced to a script, and would always have to exercise discretion.

At the end of the day, the applicant could walk out of the camp with an identity card, an order sanctioning welfare assistance and more. In every district where camps were held, the number of persons received assistance went up by a factor of three to four.

The district heads operated in an authorizing environment created by the state government and could innovate with ideas such as camps. Each district conducted dozens of camps at the sub-district level, learning and improving on the job. The idea of camps in successfully addressing differently-abled welfare spread out from the initial few districts: in a matter of months, most districts started conducting similar camps.

~~ The author is a member of the Indian Administrative Service and is an MPP student at Harvard Kennedy School.

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